How to improve writing skills
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How to improve writing skills – Tips from great Medium authors

My own list of advice from great authors on how to write better.

I‘ve read tons of articles about writing but I never wrote down any advice! Although I‘ve practiced some of the tips, I sure forgot more than I remembered.

Now I decided to have it all in one place and keep it on my website. So, here they are – great tips on how to improve my skils from awesome Medium authors:

The process of writing

To those who don‘t consider themselves writers yet, the craft of writing seems hard and vague. The most frequent questions new writers ask themselves are:

  • Should I write every day?
  • How do I always get new topics to write about?

Here‘s what tips two excellent writers gave on these.

– Should I write every day?

Devon Price advises us to write regularly in The Science-Backed Way to Write a Lot:

Treat writing as an everyday habit, just like brushing your teeth. Sometimes it will be good, sometimes it will bad but that‘s OK – that’s just how it goes.

Devon advises us to set the time of the day when we are going to write. And write regularly, so we can flex our creative muscles:

Creativity comes when you consistently make time for it — and when you trust that your effort will pay off over time. It isn’t magic. It isn’t something outside of your control. It isn’t an act of martyrdom. It’s just a healthy habit you can develop, day by day.“

  • 2-3 hours of writing a day, every day would do just fine in the long run.

– How do I always get new topics to write about?

Drew Magary loves everything about writing: „Writing is all I think about and all I wanna do.“

In his essay How to Write 10,000 Words a Week, he says he has a little notebook he takes with him everywhere. Jotting down is the first phase of writing.

Of course, sometimes the greatest ideas come when you are in a shower, driving, or about to fall asleep. When you jot down your thoughts as they occur, you get a lot of raw material to play with later. Over time you will connect these pieces of the puzzle together:

Those wondrous moments when you have a clean and vivid idea and your first instinct is I GOTTA GET THIS DOWN, not because it’s ready to be read, but because getting it out is the only way to give it shape. Once you get something down, it’s now out of you. Even in rough form, you’ve given yourself clay to mold into something interesting and beautiful. That’s writing. Writing is how you complete your thoughts.“

  • Be thankful for those little flashes of insight. Write them down. Combine pieces of the puzzle later. They can make new articles over time.

How to find the right angle

– And not stray away from the subject

Marion Roach Smith is a former New York Times staffer well-known for the first article on Alzheimer‘s in the popular press. In Your Storyline is Too Big, she talks about how to write a memoir (a memoir can also be an article, not just a book).

The key to writing a good memoir is finding the right angle. You don‘t write every single detail of your family tree.

If you are, for example, writing about your dying pet, we don‘t need to read what your parents did on Sundays when you were little or how your Grandad liked fishing:

These other stories of my family bulge out in ways that your stories bulge out when you try to tell one of them (…) Instead, you have to tell these tales one at a time, pruning that octopus before it grabs you by the earrings and eats you alive. So how do you write about them? By sticking to the story at hand, clipping it down on the page as you go, selecting carefully as you type, every day reminding yourself of this one single question: What is this about?“

  • Ask yourself: “What is it about?“ and support your writing only with details that answer this question. Cut the extra.

How to write great titles

– Focus on the reader‘s benefit

Sometimes we spend more time on finding a good title than writing an article. No wonder, with so much content on the internet, you really have to stick out. Even after a lot of thought, your article doesn‘t perform well because you didn‘t choose the title properly.

In How to Write Articles People Actually Want to Read, Nico Ryan gives a great tip:

Whether implicitly or explicitly, the title of your article must always

  1. arouse curiosity
  2. give rise to emotion, and/or
  3. promise the delivery of some sort of knowledge.“
  • So, a good title contains curiosity, emotion, or promise of knowledge.

Titles that generally do well are how-tos, keywords and phrases people google, as well as topics discussed on social networks.

In How to Write Irresistible Headlines That Entice, Intrigue, and Insist on Being Read! Sarah Cy suggests you should figure out who you are writing for. Think about how they see themselves and how they want other people to see them:

“‘How to Crush Regret and Recreate Yourself At Any Age’ is more likely to be shared among, say middle-aged or older folks because they want to be seen as optimistic, powerful people who still have a lot to offer.

(…) But no one will want to share an article titled ‘Warning: You‘re Unknowingly Sabotaging Yourself Because of These 3 Things; Here’s How to STOP‘ because it makes them either a) feel like a failure, or b) feel like they are telling their friends you’re a failure.

No one likes to be seen as a loser or a pompous asshole.

– Headline formulas that work

Sarah suggests these 4 headline formulas:

  1. How to-s,
  2. Numbered lists,
  3. Negative words (awful, never, Avoid…, …doesn‘t work, here‘s how to…),
  4. Power words that evoke negative and positive emotions:
  1. Words that evoke negative emotions: Jealousy, Limiting, Toxic, Lose, Addiction
  2. Words that can evoke positive emotions: Win, Overcome, Triumph, Unstoppable, Empower

Although clickbaity is a bit stale, it still works. You can still play with these forms if your content is of high quality.

  • Consider who you are writing for. Give people hope. Make them feel good about themselves.
  • For titles, use how-tos, numbered lists, negative words, and power words for emotions.

How to tell a story

– The power of storytelling

Ali Mese explains how he gets to write gripping stories. In If You Learn to Write, You Can Change Your Life, Messe says he started improving his writing skills considerably after he read Charles Bukowski‘s sentence:

The secret is in the line.“

All you should do when writing is focus on 1 sentence at the time starting from the first one:

“The key to getting someone to read is taking it one sentence at a time, ensuring your readers are so compelled by that sentence that they want to read the next.”

It isn‘t possible to do this all the time; but by having Bukowski‘s tip in mind, your writing will improve drastically.

  • Write each sentence so that people want to read the next one.

– How to keep readers hooked

In Keep Readers Hooked With This Copywriting Technique, Chris Meyer suggests we should use a cliffhanger when making a transition from one idea to another. He gives an example of the famous John Caples‘ title: “They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano. But When I started to play!”

With a piece of information missing at the end, readers just want to know more about what happened.

But how to put it within the story?

Chris says:

(…) you need to keep the readers hooked at those critical moments when you’ve finished a thought. And an “Ummm” (a filler) isn’t going to do it.

You need an internal cliffhanger. And you need to place it right where a pause filler would otherwise go if you were speaking.“

Cliffhangers are widely used in literature. Elena Ferrante, the queen of storytelling and one of the best contemporary writers of today, often puts cliffhangers. This is why we read her stories compulsively and why her Neapolitan Novels gained worldwide popularity.

  • Use internal cliffhangers when making a transition between 2 ideas, and your readers‘ will be interested to read more.

How to improve the quality of a sentence

Eileen Pollack, former director of the University of Michigan MFA Program, has given a load of advice on how to improve your writing in her article How to Write a Sentence.

I‘ve picked out a few:

– What books do I read?

You can‘t be a good writer if you read mediocre content. But read great authors, and you will soak up some of their quality, be it the form, sentence construction, theme, or character presentation:

We pick up most of what we know about good writing by osmosis. But only if we read good writing. And only if we read a lot.“

  • Read high-quality writing.

– Do I write generic or specific sentences?

Don‘t write generalizations. Give details instead. Details help readers understand the characters better. They also help the author find the reason why the character behaves a certain way.

Pollock tells us how she taught her student to transform a generic sentence: “My father is the most forgiving man in the world“ into this: “My father’s father beat him so badly he broke both his legs. But now my father works two jobs so he can pay for my grandfather to live in the best private nursing home in the county instead of the shitty public one.”

  • Don‘t write generalizations. Give specific details.

– How many facts do I put in a sentence?

Give 1 idea per sentence, don‘t stuff it with details:

As an editor, I often see sentences into which the writer has tried to cram every detail he can think of to help us visualize a scene.“

Even though the sentence can be completely grammatically correct, our mind won‘t be able to focus on 1 idea only. We will find it hard to visualize the description because there is too much going on.

  • Don‘t make your sentences too long and complicated. Give 1 detail per sentence.

– Do I use vague words such as something, situation, thing, that, or it?

No. Make every word count and delete all the extra. Be concrete and specific. Put concrete words instead:

I earn my living by asking writers to replace “it” and “thing” with concrete nouns, to avoid vague words such as “situation,” and to substitute active verbs for “was” and “is.” Usually, you will want a sentence to convey a concrete image, or action your readers can visualize, or something specific they can hear, see, taste, smell, or feel.“

So, instead of

“I could hear something upstairs. I was afraid to go and check it. Maybe it was a ghost. I was afraid the baby was going to wake up and I had to do something.”

Put concrete words:

“I could hear a clanking sound from the upstairs. I was worried the baby would wake up. Water was dripping from the ceiling. Afraid to go and check for a ghost, I took the baby to the garden and called my neighbor.

  • Use words sparingly. Don‘t use it and that, but describe a scene, an action, or what you can feel with your senses.

Is there a secret sauce

Amy Roost says Yes. In her post What I Gave Up To Become a Successful writer, Amy reassures us things will get better if we stick to it:

Remember, the universe rewards persistence (…) (…) My advice for anyone — age 17 to 97 — looking to succeed at writing, or in a new career or venture is this:

  1. focus your energies,
  2. practice your craft,
  3. persist, and
  4. find a person who believes in your potential and is kind enough to pave the way.“
  • Stick to it.

Writing is a craft that takes years to learn. This also applies to all the rules of good writing.

So, I‘m printing and putting the little list below above my laptop. Although I‘ve already implemented some of them, the list is going to stay there until all of the practices come naturally.

TLDR:

  • 2-3 hours of writing a day, every day would do just fine in the long run.
  • Be thankful for those little flashes of insight. Write them down. Combine pieces of the puzzle later. They can make new articles over time.
  • Ask yourself: “What is it about?“ and support your writing only with details that answer this question. Cut the extra.
  • So, a good title contains curiosity, emotion, or promise of knowledge.
  • Consider who you are writing for. Give people hope. Make them feel good about themselves.
  • For titles, use how-tos, numbered lists, negative words, and power words for emotions (positive and negative).
  • Like Bukowski, write each sentence so that people want to read the next one.
  • Like Elena Ferrante, use internal cliffhangers when making a transition between 2 ideas, and your readers‘ will be interested to read more.
  • Read high-quality writing.
  • Don‘t write generalizations. Give specific details.
  • Don‘t make your sentences too long and complicated. Give 1 detail per sentence.
  • Use words sparingly. Don‘t use it and that, but describe a scene, an action, or what you can feel with your senses.
  • Stick to it.

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