8 foolproof ways to sharpen your writing skills

Tweets, blogs, Facebook updates, and other Web posts need not be sloppy or incoherent. Follow these guidelines to improve your online communiqués.

In this world of quick and constant communication, it’s easy to let pesky things like proper punctuation and grammar fall by the wayside. I mean, if you’re “just” writing a status update on Facebook, or tweeting about your company’s deal of the day, does it really matter if there’s a misspelled word? (Intentional abbreviations are an exception.)

Would a run-on sentence really make people tune out all the great info you’re sharing about your business? If you write a dull headline, will your content be ignored?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Why not take a few extra minutes to make sure that even with micro-communications, you’re communicating with clarity so your customers, followers, and friends get your message and want to read your content?

Here are eight ways to sharpen your writing skills:

1. Write more often. Writing is like any other skill: The more you do it, the better you’ll be. Writing for just five or 10 minutes a day will help you flex and strengthen those writing muscles. Remember that you don’t have to publish, tweet, or post every word you write. Sometimes it’s better to just keep your words to yourself.

2. Write catchy headlines. On the face of it, this sounds easy. After all, who doesn’t want to write a headline that grabs readers’ attention? The purpose of a headline is to tease readers, giving them a taste of what’s to come if they click. Because tweets are basically extra-long headlines, tweeting is good practice for headline writing.

Check out the stream of tweets that go through your feed, and study those that make you want to click. Chances are they contain at least two of the “4 U’s” that the people at American Writers & Artists say make effective bullet points and headlines: They are unique, convey a sense of urgency, are useful, and, above all, do so in an ultra-specific way.

Some examples of recent headlines that probably make you want to know more:

From Mashable.com: “New York Times tweet Declares NBA dead”

From Salon.com: Six reasons we may have another bank crisis

From (blogger) JeffBullas.com: Should you invest in LinkedIn and Forget Facebook?

3. Get to the point-quickly. Online readers are, for the most part, scanners with short attention spans or a paucity of time. Whether you’re constructing a Facebook update or a blog post, let your readers know the most important details right up front. You can do it cleverly, but don’t make them work too hard to figure out the gist of your post, or you’ll lose them. And yes, writing concise, informative posts is difficult. (See tip No. 1 for ways to get better at it.)

Keep in mind what you want to convey. On Twitter, create posts that are about 100 characters so your followers can retweet with an additional @mention or comment. On Facebook, the most viewed and shared posts are five lines, according to a 2011 Inside Facebook article.

4. Use bullet points and boldface type. As noted above, online readers scan. Use bullet points and/or boldface type to make your most important information stand out; doing so will help your readers stay with you.

5. Know when to use a comma. The comma is the most overused piece of punctuation, and the period is the must underused. Misplaced, commas, can disrupt the, flow of your words, making your concepts difficult, to understand. Below are three ways to use commas correctly. (There are many more, so consider this just a taste.)

• Use commas between independent clauses that are joined by any of the following words (called coordinating conjunctions): or, for, nor, and, so, yet, but. For example, “The post was written, but he couldn’t find the right image for it.”

• Use commas after introductory clauses, phrases or words—including after, although, as, because, if, since, when and while—that come before the main clause. For example: ” While I was sleeping, the power went out.” Or, “If you have time, please pick up some milk.”

• Use commas to indicate a pause in a sentence, and to set off words in the middle of sentence that are not essential. For example: On her 30th birthday, which happened to be Friday the 13th, she won $1 million in the lottery.”

For the last word on commas, check out the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University.

[FREE DOWNLOAD: 10 punctuation essentials]

6. Know the difference between “effect” and “affect.” According to Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty, the words people most often misuse are “affect” and “effect.” Most of the time, “affect” is a verb and “effect” is a noun. It’s confusing. Comedian Michelle Wolf sums it up nicely here:

Here are two sentences that use each word correctly:

• The Midwestern drought of 2012 will affect the price of corn and beef all over the United States.

• The Midwestern drought of 2012 will have a negative effect on the price of corn and beef all over the United States.

7. Know the difference between “I” and “me.” Knowing when to use “I” versus “me” seems to stymie lots of writers. Here are the basics:

• “I” is the first-person singular subject pronoun; it refers to the person performing the action of the verb. For example: “I want to run” or “Julia and I are going to run.”

• “Me” is an object pronoun and it refers to the person that the action of the verb is being done to or is the object of the preposition. For example: “Do you want to run with me?” Or, “Can you run with Julia and me?”

Saying/writing, “Can you run with Julia and I,” is incorrect. The easiest way to figure out whether to use “I” or “me” is to drop the other noun which, in this case, is “Julia.” For example, you wouldn’t say, “Can you run with I?”

8. Finally, read your posts out loud. Reading your words aloud should help you catch awkward phrases and misplaced words. It will also help you figure out where natural pauses occur so you know where to place commas and when to remove them. If you’re posting from your smartphone and have auto-correct enabled, reading your work aloud will also make it clear when a misspelled or unusual word has been replaced with the wrong word.

Dana Sullivan Kilroy is the social media director for ShortStack.com, a self-service Web application design tool that allows individuals and businesses to create custom Facebook apps. She also writes for Socially Stacked where a version of this article originally appeared.

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