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Managing Monday: 5 Tips to Become a Better Writer

September 3, 2012

Everyone can stand to become a better writer.  Even if your life’s desire isn’t to write the next great American novel, writing likely plays some role in your day-to-day life.  That role is arguably most likely found in the workplace, where tasks assigned to you often involve writing.  If you could improve upon your communication skills and persuasiveness through writing, think about the doors that could be opened to you.  Improving as a writer could mean raises, bonuses, introductions to senior co-workers and better career opportunities.

Writing is my passion.  For me, it is not work, but rather, something that I love.  I know that the same is not true for everyone.  Thus, the following are some tips I have for how everyone can improve as a writer.

1.  Practice Makes Perfect

For people who do not enjoy writing, my first tip is probably enough to stop them from ever trying to improve as a writer.  The truth though, is that the only way to become a better writer is to practice.  The same goes for everything in life.  Some people in this world are born with natural abilities that are superb.  However, even the LeBron’s, Beyonce’s and Phelps’ practice.

The good news, though, is this isn’t high school.  Practicing writing doesn’t need to be some dull task that takes hours to motivate yourself to complete.  Rather, when in adulthood you assign yourself the task of becoming a better writer, you have the opportunity to engage in fun exercises to do so.

Why is it that you need to become a better writer?  Is it to improve in your career?  Is it to become a better storyteller?  Is it to take over the internet with your blog?

First, figure out the reason why you need to improve as a writer.  Then, craft exercises that will help you accomplish that goal.  If you want to become a better writer for career purposes, think of the type of writing your job requires of you.  Say you need to write product reviews.  You can launch your own blog and make it a goal to write two product reviews per week.  Or, if you need to write media releases, reach out to a small business in your community to see if they will let you write some press releases for them.  Or, write about the topic in which you are the most familiar:  Yourself.  Start a personal blog to keep your friends and family updated about your happenings–they’ll love it, and you’ll get practice writing.  Get creative so that the practice doesn’t seem like work, but like fun.  You’ll find that the more you write, the better you’ll get.  Your style will strengthen, your voice will develop and your vocabulary will expand.

I can definitely preach all of this, because I am a testament of practice making better (I’m still not perfect).  One only has to go back to my early stories on RulingSports.com to recognize this!

2.  Remember Your Audience

Remembering your audience is one of the first writing tips I can remember receiving as a youngster.  When writing short stories in elementary school, our teacher would always instruct, “Don’t forget who your audience is!”  I always thought this was an absurd tip, as my audience was always the same:  My seven-year-old classmates and my mom.  I’m sure they all loved my first literary hit, Chocolate the Horse.

However, the fact of the matter is, remembering your audience is one of the most important facets of becoming a good writer.  This is because, if your audience does not understand the point you are trying to drive home in your writing, then you have not accomplished your goal.

Therefore, before writing anything, take a few minutes to truly define who your targeted audience is.  How do you specifically need to communicate so that your target audience understands your message?  What type of writing will prevent them from understanding your message?

In my educational and professional background, I learned three different types of writing:  Technical writing in engineering school, legal writing in law school and journalistic writing in my sports writing endeavor.  Each of them is completely different from the other, based solely upon the fact that each addresses a different type of audience.

RulingSports.com is a sports law blog.  However, if I wrote RulingSports.com using my legal writing background alone, I would not have a very large following.  This is because, only a select number of people can quickly comprehend legal writing.  Lawyers make up that select number of people.  Instead, I use journalistic writing to address my audience on RulingSports.com.  Recognizing that lawyers and non-lawyers will visit the website has allowed me to write in a way that my audience will comprehend the message I am communicating.

3.  Treat Words as a Scarce Resource

One of the easiest ways to become a better writer, is to re-read through every sentence you write and cut out the unnecessary words.  The best writers, are those who can make their points concisely.  The English language is masterful in allowing one to do this.

How can you spot unnecessary words?  You acquire this ability through practice.  See Tip #1 above.  Write something that you’re excited to write.  Then, read through every sentence slowly.  Ask yourself, “What is this word’s purpose in this sentence?”  “How does this word get across the point I’m trying to communicate?”  If you cannot state the word’s purpose or explain how it gets your point across, omit it.

If you make this a practice, over time, you will become a more concise writer.  In becoming more concise, you will find that your vocabulary expands as you learn ways to say something that would require, say, five words, in one.  When the sentences you write contain only words necessary to communicate your point, there is no way that people will misunderstand your point.  This is the goal of writing.  If you can achieve this, you are well on your way to becoming a fantastic writer!

4.  Longer Isn’t Better

When my summer interns for RulingSports.com started in May, my feedback on their first writing assignments was largely the same:  Cut down your run-on sentences.  Just as unnecessary words hamper clear communication, run-on sentences make understanding a writer’s point nearly impossible.

A run-on sentence is a sentence that contains more than one thought.  For concise and clear communication, it is necessary that a sentence contain only one thought.  One way to spot a run-on sentence is to look for sentences containing more than one comma.  While this is not a hard-and-fast rule, it is a way to start spotting run-on sentences.  In scanning through your paper, look for this type of sentence.  When reading through the sentence ask, “Does this sentence contain only one thought, or are the commas there to separate one thought from another?”

If your answer is the latter, you should delete the comma and separate the sentence into two (at a minimum).  In the alternative, if your sentence which contains multiple commas contains merely one thought,  you should keep it as-is.

You should treat your sentences the same way you treat your words:  As though each one serves an absolute purpose.  If you find that a sentence does not clearly communicate the idea you are setting forth, chances are it’s a run-on.  See if breaking it down so that only one idea is present will allow you to clearly communicate your point.

5.  Buy This Book

My senior year of college, I signed up for a course called “The American Dream.”  At the Colorado School of Mines, there really wasn’t such a thing as a cake walk course.  For instance, some of my friends took Physics III as an elective.  I, however, was not that person.  Thus, when I saw “The American Dream” in the course bulletin, I thought I hit the elective course jackpot.

I was wrong.  The course was one of the most reading and writing intensive classes I have ever taken–and that includes courses taken in law school.  Our instructor was a former Cornell football coach who was pushing 90-years-old.  I’m pretty sure Mr. Hogan was put on this earth solely to breakdown everything I thought I knew about writing and re-teach me the correct way.

Each Monday, we were required to turn in an essay on a topic inspired by one of the many books we were assigned to read.  Each Monday, Mr. Hogan would stand at the front of the class and frantically wave around his copy of another book he assigned.  He’d say things like, “Did any of you pick this up this weekend?  If you did, you might get better grades!”

That book was Strunk and White’sThe Elements of StyleThe Elements of Style  is a Bible of sorts amongst writers.  It’s a mere 95-pages long (including the glossary).  Yet, the text of those pages holds the keys to perfect writing.  If one adopted each tip given by William and E.B. (yes, from Charlotte’s Web fame), they could possibly write the next great American novel.  However, adopting the tips requires a significant amount of practice.  As such, see Tip #1 above.

Most of all, though, remember that writing is fun.  Writing is a communicate resource.  It is a method, like words, body language, gestures and romance, by which you can express your innermost thoughts.  That recognition in and of itself is powerful, and should motivate you to become a better writer.

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