As you may or may not know, I am an avid writer. I am not, however, particularly good at grammar or spelling. As I often say to people who point out my mistakes, “If it doesn’t have a spelling error, you know I didn’t write it!” Despite my lack of attention to and patience for these details, I still manage to get my thoughts out on paper fairly regularly: I have published 4 books and have a few more in the works. This article is a collaboration between me and Stephen Huffaker, an English and Communications student who is currently acting copy editor for Wildebeest Publishing Company.
Writing, of course, can be challenging. There are plenty of materials out there to help you improve your writing skills, and I encourage you to seek them out. This article is based upon my own experiences, and includes 7 simple tips, all of which I incorporate into my daily writing. The tips are primarily applicable to non-fiction in an academic or professional context, but are general enough to be useful in other instances as well. I have found them all personally beneficial, and I hope that you will too.
Just start writing.
Nobody likes staring at a blank word document. But as you probably know, getting started is one of the most difficult stages of the writing process. One of the best ways to get past that initial daunted feeling is just to put all your ideas on the page. Once you’ve forced yourself to articulate them in writing, no matter the quality, you’ll be able to think through them much more effectively. Moreover, continuing your work will feel a lot less intimidating if you already have something to build off. To make this easier, you may want to…
…start in the middle.
Writing is an exercise in thinking; as Flannery O’Connor famously said, “I write to discover what I know.” Essentially, you’ll have a clearer idea of how your beginning should look if you’ve already written some of the main content. Generally speaking, the middle part of your work is where the meat of the content should appear, and it’s usually best to build the beginning around that. In most contexts, the introduction should reflect the main content, but you may not know exactly what the main content is until you’ve begun it. Starting with the body of the work will help you hone your ideas so that you can articulate them more clearly in other sections.
Be ready when the ideas come.
Another reason you might be having trouble getting started is because your ideas are days or weeks old. When I have an idea for an article or a book, I start writing it immediately. If I’m at my computer, I pop open a Google Doc and start writing whatever comes to mind. If I’m not at my computer, I’ll add to a list of ideas on my phone or jot it down on paper. When you come back to your idea later, you don’t have to start from nothing and it’s much easier to get your mind back to where you were when the thought came to you.
Work in time blocks.
While this is a productivity strategy that can be applied to any type of work, I find it particularly helpful for writing, especially when it comes to long projects. As any writer knows, a paper or article is rarely finished in a single sitting. If you’re having trouble making progress, try setting aside a block of time in which you do nothing but write. Eliminate distractions as much as possible, and try to limit your time block to no more than a few hours without a break; any longer and you’re likely to lose focus. If you do find yourself losing focus, try again with a shorter time block. Repeat this process regularly, more than once a day if possible. You may be surprised at your progress.
Consider turning off or taming the music.
While many people find their focus is improved by music or other ambient background noise, the opposite is possible too; background noise can negatively affect your productivity and the quality of your work. For me, background music improves my mood and makes my work more pleasant, but is only practical for simple tasks. Writing requires a high level of creativity and mental clarity that I find difficult to achieve with background music, particularly if it contains words. If you usually write with music, try listening to instrumental music or just going with silence for a change.
Have fun with your vocabulary.
I find writing much more enjoyable when I allow myself the pleasure of some flowery language here and there. Consult a thesaurus for some ideas. If you already have a broad vocabulary, don’t be afraid to include striking words when appropriate. However, it’s always important to remember the tone and context of your work and not to go overboard; your diction will be at its best when used with precision. When incorporated properly, compelling word choice can add interest for both you and your readers. It can make the writing process more fun and ensure your writing isn’t repetitive or bland.
As mentioned at the start of this article, these days I usually get one or more people to review and/or collaborate with me on certain topics. Hire a student, find a proofreader on Fiverr, or ask your teenager for suggestions. I suggest using one or more of these methods in addition to using Grammarly or other proofreading software.
Overall, whether or not you incorporate these suggestions into your writing depends on how effective they are for you. You may find them helpful, or you may not. Ultimately, you should do what helps you produce the highest quality writing — your readers will thank you!