The best way to become a better writer is to write more.
Just about any business guru, consultant or advice column will tell you that you need to measure the return on investment (ROI) for everything you do. They’ll also tell you that there are numerous intangibles that can’t be quantified or monetized that also contribute to a company’s success.
Among the most basic of these intangibles are good writing and communications skills. You can’t assign a dollar value to it, but the ability to succinctly communicate your value may mean the difference between signing a new client and losing out to a competitor. The lack of clarity (and proper punctuation) in writing can also be costly, as one Maine dairy company discovered.
So, what is good writing? It’s a question that has bedeviled editors and educators for as long as people have been writing. I’ve written thousands of words and read many millions more and I don’t have the answer. But as Justice Potter Stewart said in a landmark case about pornography, “I know it when I see it.”
The advice I give to anyone who asks how to become a better writer is simple: write more.
The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill tries to help instructors understand what writing is, so they’ll be able to better evaluate their students’ efforts. This attempt at defining what writing is could be helpful to anyone interested in being a better writer and is worth reading in full, but the most important takeaways are:
- Writing is a social act. It’s a way to communicate an idea to a specific audience, which could be a single customer or the world at large.
- Writing is linear. All writing tells a story and the best stories have a beginning, middle and end.
- Writing is an ongoing process. Everyone writes. Good writers write, then they re-write. After evaluating the re-write, they may re-write again. (James Michener, Pulitzer Prize winning author of more than 40 books, once said, “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.”)
Good writing is a skill that needs to be developed. As is the case with many skills, what you get back is proportionate to what you put in. Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors is a naturally talented athlete. But that’s not why he sinks more than 90% of his free throws. It’s because he spent hour after hour at the foul line, shooting baskets.
Writing is something you do alone, but there are also numerous places to turn for help and advice. One of my favorites is the Hemingway Editor, which will analyze your copy and tell you about sentence complexity, usage of adverbs and passive voice, and help with proofreading.
And speaking of Hemingway and editors, we probably wouldn’t know the names Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe today if they didn’t share the same great editor—Maxwell Perkins. So don’t be afraid of letting someone else edit or proofread your writing. It can help keep you from making embarrassing mistakes.
Remember, if you want to be a good writer, write more. Use complete thoughts and sentences when you’re sending emails. When you’re writing content for your website or a marketing campaign, don’t be satisfied with your first draft. No matter how good a piece is, it can probably be better.
You may not be able to quantify the return you get on the time you put into becoming a better writer, but the effort will be worth it.