One question that I get a lot is “I want to produce good writing. How do I get started?” or “How do I become a better writer?”. I’m not an expert, but I have two Amazon best sellers and I make a living from my writing on social media and on my website.
They say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. What they don’t tell you is that the inverse is also true: When the teacher is ready, students will come in droves. My inbox is a testament to the truth of this.
I figure that I have a few things to say on the subject worth listening to. At the very least, I understand the difference between good and bad writing in terms of how engaging it is and what makes people want to become a fan of yours.
There are a few things that you can do if you want to improve your writing and it doesn’t matter what kind of writing you do. Whether you want to write better for work, start a blog as a hobby, or earn a living, these basic tips will make your bad writing good and your good writing great.
5 Ways To Turn Bad Writing Into Great Writing
You probably don’t read enough.
The average person reads 4 books per year. That’s not too bad until you discover that the median number of books read is 12. This means that a small number of people are doing almost ALL of the reading.
Or look at it this way: if you enjoy reading, you read A LOT. If you don’t, you pretty much never touch a book.
Reading websites doesn’t count (even this one) because the content is often written specifically to hijack your attention with ridiculous headlines. The length of website articles is short so you don’t have to think deeply and engage with the material. Furthermore, it’s on a website and connected to the internet which means that it comes with distractions.
Reading books–whether they’re fiction or non-fiction–trains you to concentrate on the written word. When you aren’t distracted by sensational titles and pop-ups, you can absorb things from the writing that will make your writing better.
Even if you write for a blog and you’re competing for clicks, reading books will make you better able to produce content because reading develops concentration. Specifically, the concentration required for the creation of the written word.
Also, audiobooks don’t count.
Because you’re hearing the words rather than reading them, you don’t experience text the way it was produced to be consumed. Even if you plan to write a book that will be turned into an audiobook, you still have to write it in the first place! This means that you need to get a feel for how words are put together so that you can skillfully put them together as well.
Bad writers never read other writers so they have no chance of becoming good writers themselves.
Take Notes of What You Like and Dislike
You likely have a style or genre of writing that you enjoy. This is also likely the genre that you want to write.
Take notes of what you enjoy about it. There are also things about the writing that turn you off. The reasons you like or dislike a piece of writing will be your roadmap to writing better. For the things you like, you’ll learn how to create them in your own writing. For the things you dislike, figure out how to improve them or avoid doing them.
There is more written word in the world than any one person can ever read. There is no reason for you to learn how to write by total trial and error. Great writers have always learned from the mistakes of other writers.
By reading what’s already been written and reflecting on what you enjoyed about the writing, you’re one step closer to producing engaging content you like. Focusing on content that you enjoy is important for another reason: if you don’t enjoy consuming it, you won’t enjoy creating it.
If you don’t enjoy creating it, your writing career will be over before it gets started.
Live and Build A Life
If you haven’t done anything in your life, what the hell could you possibly write about?
This is the most common folly I see people commit when they attempt to build a “personal brand” . You can’t build a personality and life through your writing. Your writing is a secondary pursuit to the life you live.
If you’re writing non-fiction, you need experience in whatever you’re writing about.
If you plan to produce creative writing, then you need to understand people and how they interact. This ensures that your characters are believable.
When you’ve experienced pain, overcome it, and built something out of it, then you’ve lived a life that enhances your writing. Until then, your writing will be a formulaic mess, void of any heart or personality.
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Optimize Your Communication
This is the closest to a technical rule that I will give you.
Your vocabulary should be extensive enough to not sound like an idiot, but simple enough so that you can communicate with one.
Using big words in everyday conversation is for people who want to sound smarter than they really are. There is an appropriate place and time for even the most abstruse word, but if you drop $5 dollar words when a 50 cent one will do, I assume you don’t know what you’re talking about.
If you can’t explain it simply, you either don’t understand it or your communication is trash. Both of these are fixable with effort on your part.
To be a good writer, you must always assume that the reason you aren’t understood is because you weren’t clear in your explanation. Yes, stupid people exist, but you can’t control them. By virtue of their limited intellect, they aren’t your target audience anyway.
Simplify your communication to the point where it’s easily understood by most, but simplify it no further than that.
I saved the most obvious piece of advice for last. Seriously, it’s amazing how many people want to be writers but haven’t written a damn thing.
I’m not one of those guys who believes you need to be officially published before you’re a writer, but you can’t improve the skill of writing if you aren’t practicing it. It’s really that simple. The journey to the New York Times Bestseller list starts with a single sentence.
It doesn’t matter what you write, but you need to write something.
It doesn’t matter if you show it to other people or not–at first. But if you want to be a writer, then you have to produce content–and you will eventually have to share some of it. Don’t worry about being ridiculed; you likely won’t have an audience yet anyway.
Also, save everything you write. As your writing improves, you’ll go back over your old stuff and likely cringe. That’s ok. That’s a sign that you’ve improved.
One cool thing about books that are published is that they tend to have been vetted by editors–especially the older books. What this means is that you’ll get to see the sentence structure, word economy, the structure of prose, and the flow of the story on display at a fairly high level.
It used to cost a lot of time, money, and manpower to produce and distribute books. This means that they tried to produce a top-notch product in all aspects. You should read older books for no other reason than this.
Websites have the luxury of being able to edit on the fly while simultaneously being designed for quick consumption. In other words, they aren’t built to last and almost never to profit. Books were, so that means you can learn a lot by reading them.
First Drafts Are For Word Vomit
A lot of people think that they need to produce excellent writing from the start or they’re bad writers. To produce good writing in your first draft, you need to be in the process of editing while you write and that is not good for your creative process.
Your first time writing anything simply needs to be expression. It doesn’t even need to be readable; you can go back and edit later.
“The first draft of anything is shit.”
This is one the greatest writers of all time telling you that it’s ok to produce terrible writing on the first draft.
Your only goal is the first draft is to get words on the page. If your sentence structure is terrible, you can change it later. If you constantly change point-of-view, you can correct it later. If you overuse the same word, you can come back and find synonyms later.
There is nothing you can’t correct. All you need to do in the first draft is get the basics of your structure or storyline down.
Recap of 6 Quick Ways To Fix Bad Writing
- Read more
- Take notes of what you like and dislike
- Live and build a life
- Optimize your communicate
- Don’t worry about finding the best words in your first draft
These tips aren’t exhaustive, but they get you started in improving a lot of your writing. My other article here covers even more tips to improve your ability to express yourself with the written word.