10 ways for professional writers to hone their craft

For casual scribes, stringing words together can be a bit of a lark. Professional communicators, though, must adhere to higher standards. Embrace these practices for ongoing improvement.

Improve your writing skills

Anyone can write, but it takes hard, strategic work to become a good writer.

Here are 10 proven ways to improve your skills:

1. Prepare. Absorb information about writing, but don’t overwhelm yourself. I’ve been known to read a writing handbook or editing manual cover to cover, but I recommend reading one chapter or section at a time and absorbing information from online resources in similarly small doses.

2. Practice. Work on your writing every day. Commit to a daily writing exercise, even if you have only five minutes to spare. If you write for a living, or writing constitutes a significant proportion of your daily tasks at work, set aside time to practice other forms of composition. Style or subject matter can vary day to day, or you can decide to, for example, respond in writing to something you experienced with any of your five senses (including anything you watched or read by way of a form of media). Alternatively, find a list of writing prompts online, and use the next one on the list each day, or choose one randomly.

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3. Engage with others. Participating in a group learning activity is a great motivator. When you’ve paid for a class and/or scheduled time for attend classes or workshop sessions, you’re more likely to persevere, and completing assignments and projects will help you establish and/or maintain your writing discipline.

If you’re intimidated by a group setting, consider finding a writing partner with whom you can exchange drafts and/or discuss concepts and practice skills, then graduate, on your own or with your partner, to a course or workshop. Alternatively, seek out online courses or groups.

4. Read. Read for education, enjoyment and enlightenment. For the most part, with recreational reading, just sit back and enjoy yourself. Still, consider devoting occasional sessions to analytical reading, in which you highlight particularly effective words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs; think about why they stand out; and apply the techniques to your own writing.

5. Organize. Use organizational techniques such as outlines and diagrams. Brainstorm keywords and essential ideas or plot points. If other forms of creative expression stimulate you, use them: Listen to (or play) music to inspire a certain mood, collect photographs or illustrations of people, places, and things that suggest elements you want to incorporate into an essay or a short story, or draw sketches of characters or settings to help you visualize them.

6. Research and double-check your facts. Whether you’re writing nonfiction or fiction, take care to write authoritatively. If you’re writing a short story or a novel, read about the historical background of the setting to make sure that you are not introducing counterfactual or anachronistic elements.

When crafting a newspaper, magazine or website article, or a blog post, educate yourself on your topic, and double-check quantitative information: proper names; affiliations and relationships; and dates, distances, dollar amounts, and so on.

7. Be flexible. Write with an open mind. Be flexible about changing the focus of an article or essay or the protagonist or plot of a short story or a novel. Question your assumptions, and accept that your initial goal or message may not be the most effective or useful one, or the one that you are prepared to express just now.

8. Draft, and revise. Expect to be dissatisfied by your first draft, and don’t assume your second draft will be your last.

Whether you’re writing a blog post or a book manuscript, the initial iteration may only slightly resemble the final draft—which, if you also submit it for editing, will differ from the edited version. Some writers have managed to produce an admirable piece of writing on the first try, but you will probably spend as much time (if not more) revising your first draft (and subsequent efforts) as you did producing it. Embrace the opportunity to improve your baseline output by reorganizing, inserting and omitting text; reshaping phrases and sentences; and replacing bland verbs and tired clichés and vague descriptions.

9. Hire an editor. You will be more successful if you accept that objective assistance enhances virtually everyone’s prose. Hiring an editor is a significant investment of time and money, but if you find a good editor, the investment will be worth it. (Note that with any other service, you often get what you pay for, so when choosing an editor, focus on quality of results rather than quantity of expense you will incur.)

Choose an editor who knows what they are doing and will not hesitate to provide revisions and critiques at the risk of damaging your ego.

10. Practice humility. Perhaps you were praised at home and/or at school for your writing, or you have won one or more writing awards, or you have had articles or stories (or even books) published.

Any or all of those achievements constitute a good start, but you are still developing as a writer, and you always will be. Continue to practice these habits, and welcome other opportunities to grow functionally and creatively as a writer.

A version of this post first appeared on Daily Writing Tips.


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