Think about your daily life: You write texts and emails to friends, family and colleagues. You make comments and posts on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter (or whatever that becomes now that it’s X Corp.), Whatsapp and—if you’re old school—Facebook. You post updates on Slack or Google Chat and reviews on Yelp, Rotten Tomatoes, Amazon or a site I’m too old to know about. You create memos and documents for work or essays and assignments for school.
You are a writer, whether you call yourself one or not.
But if you’re reading this blog, you probably want to be a better writer.
Which is a great idea. The Internet may be dominated by videos and pictures, but the written word is still a vital part of the way you present yourself and your ideas to the world. People notice when you use words well, and, frankly, they notice it even more when you use words badly.
I’ve made my living as a writer for decades and have taught writing—for corporate communications, public relations and social media—for the past 20-plus years, so I’ve learned more than a few ideas that, taken to heart and put into practice, will make you a better writer.
1. Know Your Audience
Before you start writing anything, think about your audience and put yourself in their shoes.
Let’s say your boss asks you to write an FAQ document about the product you’ve been working on for months. You know this product inside and out. Great news! You barely have to think about the content.
Your first question should be: Who will read, or needs to read, this document? Is it for people within the company (targeted, for example, to sales and marketing teams or for every employee around the world)? Is it for current customers who already know something about your enterprise? Or for a new audience entirely, a new market segment that doesn’t know anything about your business?
It’s not a great leap to realize that the same content might get deployed in different ways for these three audiences. So before you write, take the time to articulate your audience and jot down your quick answers to three questions:
What do they already know about this product?
What don’t they know?
What would you like them to know?
Most of the time, this step won’t take more than a few minutes of conscious thought. But by answering these questions upfront, all of your writing decisions will be easier to make—and the end result will be more effectively tailored to the needs of your audience.
2. Articulate Your Goal or Purpose
Once you’ve determined something about your audience, remind yourself what you want the outcome to be when someone reads your email, memo, post, white paper or marketing artifact.
Are you trying to inform or educate? To sell or support the sales process? To generate engagement (particularly relevant to social media content)? Do you want to convince someone to take a specific action like signing up for a webinar, trying that new restaurant or downloading your app? Or is your goal a more internal one: summarizing the analysis of a new investment or a proposed change to your company’s human resources policy?
Articulating your goal will dictate a lot of your writing decisions, including the most critical ones: the form and tone of the content you’ll produce. If your objective is, for example, to provide information, a white paper or an e-book might be in order (and, almost always, with a focus on adding value more than selling).
A more explicit sales goal might dictate a different approach, focusing on the benefits to prospects, creating excitement and guiding them to take action. If your goal is engagement, you have to be reader-centric and entertaining by writing in a way that is less about you or your company and more about what the reader wants.
If your objective is to document or provide a rationale for an internal move, you’ll probably be thinking of a memo or a report.
Simply reminding yourself of the end goal will also help you write with greater focus and power.
3. Write From a Personal Perspective
If that’s not appropriate, then write from a human one.
Lots of people who write for work but don’t consider themselves writers revert to an overly formal style that sounds a lot like the paper on the Cold War you handed in for your college class on American history—or (this is actually considerably worse) sounds like a memo from a lawyer about the tax code or a nothing-but-the-facts Wikipedia entry.
What does a personal and human perspective mean in practice?
First, some don’ts: Don’t use passive constructions. Instead of, “It was decided that…,” write, “We decided…” Don’t use jargon or acronyms if there’s the slightest chance that your reader won’t understand them. (See idea #1: Know Your Audience.) Don’t condescend; it’s never a good look, regardless of your audience.
Write like there’s a real person behind the writing—because there is one: You! Use personal pronouns like “I” and “we” and “you.” Use contractions. Be conversational. And don’t be afraid of sentence fragments or starting a sentence with “and” or “but.”
There will be occasions where your writing might need to be more formal or more objective (white papers, articles for scientific journals). But the vast majority of the time, write like a person trying to communicate with another person.
4. Be Tangible and Specific
Consider these terrible sentences:
Cloud-enabled IT infrastructure can lead to competitive advantage.
I had a great vacation in Mexico.
Retirement planning requires a long-term investment strategy.
Each of these sentences is grammatically correct and clear; no one will struggle with their meaning. But none of these sentences say anything useful, compelling or engaging. They are vague to the point of meaninglessness.
Make your prose more powerful by making it more tangible—and using specifics is the way to do that:
Cut your IT infrastructure costs by 37% by moving to the cloud.
Fresh papaya. Old tequila. Ancient art: Oaxaca was the best trip I’ve ever made.
You’re going to retire in 2063—that’s 30 years from now. What should you be thinking about today when it comes to your 401(k)?
Specifics are more relatable and much, much more powerful than generalities. This tactic may seem difficult at first, but it will get easier and, eventually, become second nature.
5. Prepare Yourself to Rewrite
This may be the hardest “easy” piece of advice to swallow: Your first draft, at least of something of even moderate importance, will not be ready for distribution or publication.
All good writing is rewriting.
I’ll acknowledge that it’s very hard to finish that first draft and plunge right back in for a rewrite. If my client needs something on Tuesday, I’m going to get a first draft done by Monday at the latest—at least whenever possible.
If that’s not possible—say you’re writing a post that has to be published by the close of business—take a real break after the first draft. Go outside, have some coffee, work on something else, or ask someone you trust to give it a read and provide constructive comments. The editing mindset is different from the writing one, so give yourself some space to move from one way of thinking to another.
Here’s a pro tip for editing and rewriting: Read your piece aloud and record it on your phone, then listen to the playback. Whenever you hear a stumble or pause, that’s a good sign you have some editing to do.
It’s also very hard to abandon sentences, paragraphs or entire drafts. But when you start to think that a draft is just a draft—that it’s a work-in-progress—your writing will improve dramatically. Rewriting is the key to success.
6. Embrace AI—But Don’t Rely on It (Yet)
You’ve heard of ChatGPT, Bing AI, Google’s Bard or any of the many other artificial intelligence–based conversational agents that are making headlines and threatening to replace human writers. If you play around with one of these tools, you will be amazed by what they can do, but I suspect that any decent writer will also see that they are not quite ready for prime time.
Chatbots may create the illusion of true intelligence, but at this stage it’s mostly an illusion based on an impressive clarity of syntax and the ability to marshal facts quickly. I am decidedly not an expert in AI, but chatbots don’t yet have the capacity to form opinions or demonstrate original thinking—and that’s what writers must be able to do.
Still, ChatGPT and the like are excellent at quickly assembling some accepted wisdom and generating context about a huge variety of topics. This means AI can help you research and prepare to write. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking a conversational agent’s output is a substitute for your work.
Say your task is to create some content about how your company is using carbon offsets to promote sustainability. You ask ChatGPT for an overview of the topic and for some examples. You’ll get a good background that will help your understanding of the issue, but it will be up to you to turn that background into a story that is uniquely yours. As the writer, you add value by thinking, by rendering your ideas in prose, and by shaping the artifact for your audience and purpose.
Finally, here’s one more idea that can improve your writing skills: Be a great reader. Read a lot and read widely. Think critically about reading that moves and engages you—and think critically about reading that bores or irritates you. You can be a good reader without being a good writer, but the reverse of that is never true.
The best definition of writing I’ve ever read comes from Willam Zinsser in his classic book On Writing Well (highly recommended): “Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.”
That anyone can be you!