How to Improve Writing Skills: 20 Hard-Hitting Strategies
Most blog posts about how to improve writing skills scratch the surface and fail to talk about what it really takes to get good at writing.
It takes dedication and hard work. It’s not backbreaking work, but you have to be persistent, humble, and willing to learn.
Gradual, moderate, and persistent effort will get you where you need to go, but that starts with being honest with yourself about whether or not you’re willing to do the work.
These tips on improving your writing skills come from someone with the following street cred:
- ~90,000 followers on my Medium blog with more than 10 million lifetime views on the platform
- I was the number one earning writer on Medium for six months straight with over $350,000 in career earnings from the website
- I’ve published three books that have sold a combined 20,000+ copies. Most authors never sell more than 2,500
Most importantly, though, I have never taken a break from writing since I began seven years ago. I’ve been writing prolifically, every day, for years.
I say all this to let you know that my advice comes from experience.
There’s a lot of contradictory advice out there and some writers quickly turn around and give writing advice after having a tiny dose of success.
I waited until I got good at writing and earned my stripes before I turned writing guru, so, let me assure you, I have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about.
Let’s dive into the tips.
Before You Learn How to Improve Writing Skills, Get Rid of Your Entitlement
Always remember this. Nobody owes you anything. Audiences don’t owe you their attention. Platforms don’t owe you views or money.
These new writers are an entitled bunch. Even softer than usual.
I wrote on Medium before the partner program even existed and published free articles for years to get better at my craft.
New writers practice for a little while and then get a tummy ache. They write ill-informed opinion pieces about places like Medium, which happen to always be their best-performing articles.
Nine times out of ten, you don’t have the audience you want because your writing sucks.
This leads to my next tip.
Embrace the Suck
It’s okay to suck at writing. You’re not supposed to be good at it right away. Improving your writing skills takes years and it’s a never-ending process.
Here are the links to the first three articles I ever published just to show you how much practice makes you better:
- Escaping The Cubicle: How We’re Moving From The Industrial Age To The Information Age
- 82,200 Hours. Your Job Or Your Life.
- You Are Who You Think You Are
A few of you, who are diligent, will read these older pieces. Most won’t, which is why they’ll fail.
I tell writers to practice writing 10 headline ideas per day. The ones who thrive using this technique are the ones who aren’t afraid to come up with bad ideas to get to the good ones.
Ok, let’s get into the nitty-gritty on how to improve writing skills.
Read Junk Magazines
Particularly the covers…
“This One Little Trick Can Help You Shed 10 Pounds in a Week”
“4 Scents No Guy Can Resist”
“Unleash Your Abs! (Weight Loss Secrets)
Studying tabloids helps you get good at writing headlines, the most important part of your articles because if no one clicks, no one reads.
Tabloids also teach you a valuable lesson. Pay attention to what readers do, not what they say.
Everyone says they hate gossip and junk magazines, yet tabloid magazines and Cosmo aren’t going out of business.
Read Books on Copywriting and Persuasion
Sean Platt, the author of several successful serial novel series, credits his time as a copywriter for his success.
Copywriting uses words to sell products. The best copywriters spend the bulk of their time researching their audience first before they pen a word.
Studying copywriting and persuasion teaches you how people think.
Once you know what people want, what they’re afraid of, what frustrates them, what they hope to become, etc, it’s much easier to communicate with them.
- $100m Offers: How to Make Offers So Good People Feel Stupid Saying No
- The Boron Letters
- Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
- Copy Logic
- Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
Drill Specific Techniques One at a Time
I’ve learned several writing techniques over the years.
Every time I came across a new technique, I’d drill it into my brain through repetition. I’d always try to improve my writing skills each time I wrote a piece, but I’d put extra focus on one thing.
So, I might write a blog post and focus on making the introduction as good as possible. And I’d keep doing that with each new post until I felt like I was good at writing intros.
Picking specific techniques to tackle helps you build a repertoire fast.
Speaking of intros…
Start With a Bang
Imagine you read a blog post that started this way:
“I smashed a lamp over my head. There was blood everywhere. And glass. And I took a picture.” [source]
“I had to get over 100 prostitutes to like me in five seconds or less.” [source]
At a minimum, you’d keep reading just to see what happens next. Practice writing amazing opening lines and study amazing opening lines to improve your writing skills.
Google phrases like:
- Best opening line of books
- Opening line examples
- Catchy opening sentences examples
End With a Bang
People won’t remember everything you’ve written in a post. The intro and conclusion do a ton of the heavy lifting, and the conclusion gives them the final impression of your writing.
If you end it too abruptly or close your pieces in an uninteresting way, they’ll probably forget about you instead of becoming loyal fans.
A good close can do several things, but it has to do something:
- End with a ‘motivational rallying cry’ that leaves your reader fired up and inspired
- Sum up everything you’ve just covered in your post. Give them the takeaways
- Prompt them to do something specific, e.g., answer a question you leave at the end of your post
Use This Technique to Get Better at Writing Intros and Conclusions
Write your first draft. After it’s done, chop the intro and conclusion. Re-write them.
Maybe you realize they’re not as suited to the main body content as you thought they’d be.
They probably don’t pack enough of a punch yet. Think carefully about the first and last impression you want to give.
Ask Yourself This Question to Get Better at Editing
Great editing can turn a good piece into a great one. It helps you improve your writing skills, too.
Every time you edit an article, go line by line and ask yourself:
Does this sentence need to be there?
If you remove it, does anything about the piece change? If not, cut it.
Are you repeating a sentence or a concept in a way that doesn’t add value? Cut.
Does it make the reader want to read the next sentence? If not, cut it.
Find a Mentor to Help You With Your Writing
I got lucky. An editor at Thought Catalog took a liking to my work and edited every single piece I wrote for the site for about 18 months straight.
Working with someone who has writing experience shortens your learning curve.
After that, I followed a small handful of writing gurus and didn’t listen to anyone else. If you take advice from too many people at once, you won’t form a philosophy that guides your writing.
I look at writing gurus like senseis at a dojo. There are several different styles of kung-fu, but it’s all kung-fu. Think of blogging the same way. Find someone whose style you like and follow their advice to the letter.
Stop Being Arrogant
I credit one trait, above all others, to my success as a writer. The trait doesn’t even have anything to do with writing itself.
I know how to follow directions.
I followed the steps and directions from these resources to the letter without questioning anything. I humbled myself to learn from someone who had what I wanted.
Most beginners question advice and skip steps, even though they don’t have the results they want, and the person giving them the advice does.
The next time you read a step-by-step writing guide, try actually doing what it says for a change.
Take a Writing Course
Speaking of writing courses, take one. Take a bunch. I still take new writing courses to this day. I’m starting one this week.
Courses get a lot of flack for no reason. I’ve literally never taken a bad one. The ROI on each one has been crazy.
I took a course on self-publishing books for $750. My books have made more than $75,000 and have a combined of 583 reviews. That’s a 100x return.
I learned the core skillset I used in my writing from a course that cost $197. I’ve made more than $400,000 directly from writing alone. A more than 2,000x return.
When people ask me for my advice on how to improve writing skills, I direct them to my course. I packed seven years of experience into it for you to digest over a few hours. You’re welcome.
Nobody writes like me.
Countless readers have told me they can tell I wrote an article even if I didn’t put my name on it.
Developing a distinct voice just comes with time. You have to figure out what works for you. I’d emulate writers I looked up to and played copycat for a while.
But, eventually, I settled in on the way I wanted to write. A way that comes across the exact same way I am in real life.
I’m crass, politically incorrect, blunt, curious, aggressive, optimistic, encouraging, and brutally honest. I found a weak spot in the market.
Most writers don’t have the stones to say what they really mean, so I filled that void. Practice long enough and you’ll find the weak spots and voids you can fill.
Pause and Reflect
This seems obvious to me, but it goes over a lot of writers’ heads.
If you’ve been practicing your writing for a while, and it’s still falling flat, you should ask yourself why that is.
I’ve seen writers who practice for years but don’t actually get any better. They don’t get better because, again, they’re self-centered.
Usually, they’re the type to write a bunch of boring, naval-gazing, insignificant, and totally uninteresting stories about their own lives.
Or they just write about topics nobody wants to read about. Or they have a bizarre writing style that’s not enjoyable to read.
Strangely, they have a huge blindspot and never consider that they, in fact, might be the problem. Remember, it’s never the audience’s fault.
Learn How to Write For An Audience
Traditional blogging techniques get a ton of flack. Some writers call you a hack if you use them. They’re wrong.
Learning how to ‘blog’ is a gateway drug to esoteric writing.
I can go toe to toe with any writer out there. Including MFA grads.
Here’s the dirty little secret about the pretentious writer types. They’re broke and no one reads their shit.
It makes them bitter to see ‘bloggers’ like Mark Manson sell 3 million copies of his book.
Fuck em. Learn how to write for an audience, get paid, and get better at the same time.
A Tip to Get Much Better At Editing
Read your draft out loud.
Doing this helps you catch weird-sounding phrases you wouldn’t have spotted by just reading them.
It helps you write sentences and paragraphs that flow together smoothly.
I don’t do this for every blog post I write, but for long-form works like books, I always read the draft aloud.
The first time I did it, I was shocked by how well it worked. Try it.
Add Power Words For Flair
Power words evoke emotion.
- Fear power words: agony, panic, scart
- Encouragement power words: amazing, life-changing, miraculous
- Lust power words: allure, naughty, tempting
- Anger power words: annoying, obnoxious, vicious
- Greed power words: attractive, money, noteworthy
- Safety power words: authentic, privacy, science-backed
- ‘Forbidden’ power words: ancient, myths, secrets
Sprinkle them into every part of your articles from the headline to intros to the main points themselves. In general, try to think of a way to make your sentences pop.
You can have two phrases that technically mean the same thing, but one sounds way better.
Do you struggle to finish your writing?
Do you agonize over every word and stress yourself into a panic about writing the perfect article?
This blog post contains 801+ power words you can use to add some spice to your writing.
Write at a 4th Grade Level
Ernest Hemingway is known for simple writing.
Simple doesn’t mean bad or unintelligent. Simple means easy to understand.
Snobby writers make their writing more complicated than it needs to be.
“It’s the mark of a charlatan to make simple topics sound complex. It’s the mark of a genius to explain a complex topic in a simple way.” – Naval Ravikant
I like and use $2 words, too. But they come out naturally. I can tell when writers try to use big words to seem smarter than they are and it never comes across the way they think it does.
Hire or Work With a Professional Editor
I spent $3,000 on an editing team for my most recent book. Several dozens of people have called it the best self-help book they’ve ever read.
They tore my ideas apart. It was brutal.
When it came to the prose itself, they were equally harsh. Usually, by the time I’m done working with a really good editor I’m pissed off at them.
They push you to get better, really get better. Again, this comes back to having the humility to accept instruction, be coachable, and put trust in others with experience.
I once wrote a post about kindle publishing at Smart Blogger, which is one of the top writing blogs in the world.
The editor was borderline abusive. It took me six months to write and they only paid me $300 for the piece. Worth it.
I got so much better. Spend coin on a pro or write for websites that have editors instead of just publishing to Medium publications.
The Ultimate Piece of Advice for How to Improve Your Writing Skills
For this last piece of advice, I’ll leave you with a quote from Cheryl Strayed who had this to say to a young writer who was worried about her writing career.
Since you made it this far, read these quotes and the ending slowly. Let this advice sink in because it’ll determine whether or not you’ll make it as a writer.
In fact, read the entire question and answer here. So good. I’m also going to bold some points for emphasis.
Do you know what that is, sweet pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin words humilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That’s where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn’t get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand. I had turned thirty-five a few weeks before. I was two months pregnant with my first child. I didn’t know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn’t care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I’d pulled one out with my own bare hands. I’d suffered. I’d given it everything I had.
I’d finally been able to give it because I’d let go of all the grandiose ideas I’d once had about myself and my writing—so talented! so young! I’d stopped being grandiose. I’d lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely no-where-in-league-with-the-writers-I’d-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do.
I hope you’ll think hard about that, honey bun. If you had a two-sided chalkboard in your living room I’d write humility on one side and surrender on the other for you. That’s what I think you need to find and do to get yourself out of the funk you’re in. The most fascinating thing to me about your letter is that buried beneath all the anxiety and sorrow and fear and self-loathing, there’s arrogance at its core. It presumes you should be successful at twenty-six, when really it takes most writers so much longer to get there. It laments that you’ll never be as good as David Foster Wallace—a genius, a master of the craft—while at the same time describing how little you write. You loathe yourself, and yet you’re consumed by the grandiose ideas you have about your own importance. You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done.
We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor. I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to. The only way you’ll find out if you “have it in you” is to get to work and see if you do. The only way to override your “limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude” is to produce. You have limitations. You are in some ways inept. This is true of every writer, and it’s especially true of writers who are twenty-six. You will feel insecure and jealous. How much power you give those feelings is entirely up to you.
That you’re so bound up about writing tells me that writing is what you’re here to do. And when people are here to do that they almost always tell us something we need to hear. I want to know what you have inside you. I want to see the contours of your second beating heart.
So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.
I echo many of the same sentiments.
A lot of you writers, with little to no writing experience, sure have a lot to say about the craft.
You say you want to become a writer so badly, prove it. You get the work done at the ground level, not with your head in the clouds.
Stop being so god damned grandiose and do the work.
To be frank, most aspiring writers are self-centered and lazy. If you love to write, if you love it like I do, your timeline for improving your writing skills should be the rest of your life.
Why are you in such a rush?
You’re burnt out, really? I’m seven years in and I’m just getting started. I will attack words, concepts, and stories at every angle possible until I’m dead.
I want the stress, the anxiety, the doubt, the pressure. I live in the eye of the storm of my own ideas everyday and I persist. I’ll never be as good as I think I should be, but I’ll still die trying to get there anyway.
Of all the possible pursuits one can choose in life, earning the privilege of writing words for a living is one of the most difficult.
I didn’t start writing because I wanted to become a successful writer. I did because the very first time I penned a word, I was hooked.
Unlike you, I never quit. I never took breaks. I never felt overwhelmed. I felt joy, instantly.
Writing is hard work for you, but it’s play for me, which is why I write circles around you and pretty much everyone else I know.
Be brutally honest with yourself, do you even want this? It’s okay if the answer is no. You don’t have to do any of this.
Usually, the only writers who succeed are the ones who can’t not do it. You don’t have to come out of the box that way, I didn’t, but once you get started and get a bit of momentum…
Don’t stop, ever.
I wrote my third book half-blind after a blood vessel burst in my eye. Didn’t phase me a bit. I made sacrifices to get here, perhaps even sacrificing my own marriage in the process.
Nothing that happened in my life in the past seven years interrupted the work. Nothing.
For years, I pretty much said no to anything that wasn’t writing. I studied humbly. I read countless books and articles. I dedicated myself to getting better.
Instead of worrying about how my career would turn out, I stayed focused on the present moment every single time I sat down to write, every single day, for years. Obsession.
That’s what it takes to improve your writing skills.
Less crying. More writing.