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How to Get Better at Writing in 7+1 Steps

Author Jack Kerouac once remarked that one day he would find the right words. And they would be simple. What a humble statement from an accomplished writer. Good writing is all but effortless, the quote suggests. Luckily, it also implies we can learn how to get better at it. In seven steps, I’m going to share what you can do to improve. I’ll also include practice exercises and explain when you should ignore my tips entirely.

1. Make the First Line Count

The first line of your piece is of utmost importance. It’s meant to grab your readers’ attention, make them curious, introduce the topic and set the tone. All at the same time.

You can use a pithy observation, a fascinating fact, a thought-provoking question, or a relatable quote. Try more than one option and rewrite until you’re satisfied. I went through ten iterations before I landed on Mr Kerouac.

Practice: Come up with the first line for the following topics.

  1. An essay about the importance of humility in writing.
  2. A newsletter on the benefits of travelling to countries that start with the letter O.
  3. A personal letter about handling embarrassing situations.

2. Shorten Your Sentences

The average sentence length in the English language is 15 to 20 words. The one you just read has 15. The one after had seven. This one has four. There’s a reason why the most memorable aphorisms about life are concise and to the point.

Very long sentences are more difficult to parse and understand as they keep the mind busy — especially if they contain more than one idea. Shorter sentences require less concentration. That’s why short sentences are ideal to convey important information.

But it’s not that simple. As a rule of thumb, communicate one thought per sentence. Use short ones as your default. Then build on that by varying between short, medium and long sentences. Not as a mindless exercise. But to make your writing flow.

American author Gary Provost famously illustrated this technique by comparing it to writing music:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals — sounds that say, listen to this; it is important.

So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.

Gary Provost, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing

Practice: Break down the wordy sentence below. Give it a rhythm.

In today’s world, it seems like many people, including myself, think that writing very long sentences makes their writing sound more sophisticated and they can’t really stop doing it because they have so many ideas and want to put them all into that one single sentence in order to convey as much meaning as humanly possible, which ultimately leads to their readers not remembering much of the sentence at all if I’m being totally and utterly honest here. (78 words)

Mistakes Were Made
Mistakes Were Made by Matt Groening

3. Simplify Your Grammar

Keeping things simple also applies to grammar. The more complex the construction, the harder it is to understand. Passive sentences are a good example. Compare The passive is overused by many writers. to Many writers overuse the passive. The latter sounds more straightforward and confident.

It’s okay to bring in a variety grammar-wise. But don’t use complex structures for their own sake. Add complexity where it serves a purpose. The passive is a great choice if the doer of an action is not important or must not be named.

Practice: Simplify the grammar in the sentence below.

Sentences are to be kept short and simple by using simpler grammatical structures serving as the baseline.

4. Eliminate Rather Needless Words

Make your writing simpler by getting rid of linguistic clutter. One way is to eliminate redundant words and phrases. For example, replace In view of the fact with since, as or because. Instead of at this point in time write now. You get the idea.

Also, get rid of unnecessary words. Sometimes we add them in the false belief that they add value. They often don’t. You may think adding a qualifier such as rather is needed to get your point across. It really only adds reading time. As George Orwell put it in his rules for writing: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”

Practice: Eliminate redundant and unnecessary words from the familiar sentence below. Make it as short as possible.

In today’s world, it seems like many people, including myself, think that writing very long sentences makes their writing sound more sophisticated and they can’t really stop doing it because they have so many ideas and want to put them all into that one single sentence in order to convey as much meaning as humanly possible, which ultimately leads to their readers not remembering much of the sentence at all if I’m being totally and utterly honest here. (78 words)

5. Choose Words Wisely

Speaking of words, choose them wisely. Avoid the bravado of jargon as it has to be unpacked to be understood. Unless you’re writing for a specialised audience and it saves everyone time.

Eschew deviant or obfuscatory locutions. Use familiar words instead. Again, this makes your writing more accessible. As a rule of thumb, never sacrifice substance for style. Unless your style is the substance.

Play with synonyms, too. But be aware of their different connotations and effects. Some like to call themselves teachers, others despise the word educator. Some say old, others prefer classic. See what I did earlier by writing linguistic clutter instead of extra words? That’s right, I attempted humour.

Practice: Come up with alternatives for the following words:

  1. cacophony
  2. ephemeral
  3. key performance indicator

6. State, Explain, Illustrate

If you’re having trouble organising your sentences in paragraphs, try the State, Explain, Illustrate (SExI) method. The principle is particularly useful for argumentative pieces. Limit each paragraph to a single idea you’d like to discuss:

  • State the main idea of the paragraph with your topic sentence.
  • Explain your initial statement further, that is elaborate on the idea.
  • Illustrate your idea with examples or evidence making it more tangible.

Optionally, end your paragraph with a conclusion, the so-what that ties it all back to your original claim.

Without a topic sentence, readers are lost. Without explanations, they’re left with the looming question of why? Without illustrations, the writing can remain abstract. Use the SExI principle to flesh everything out as best as you can and as much as you want.

Practice: The sentences below are jumbled. Bring them in order in the spirit of the SExI principle.

Another one could go into the significance of paragraphs as a means to structure your ideas. This is because they’re important units of meaning holding an essay together. Paragraphs should be well structured. When writing about writing, for example, one paragraph could deal with the importance of shortening your sentences.

7. Create, Edit, Repeat

Jerry Seinfeld, the co-creator of the hapless 90s sitcom Jerry, once shared his secret to good writing. The key is to master two extreme states of mind. I took the liberty of adapting them slightly for a contemporary audience. The first mindset recognises the delicacy of a writer’s mind.

Treat Yourself Like a Child

Treating yourself like a small child means being nurturing, loving and supportive. Let your imagination and stream of consciousness run wild and free. Welcome new ideas. Pen them down as they cross your mind. Then go look for some more with eyes wide open.

When you have a first draft, let the child take a nap and…

Edit Like a Navy SEAL

Channel your inner Navy SEAL. The one who gets up at 4:30. Every. Single. Morning. The one who’s relentlessly focused on the mission: Delivering an outstanding piece of writing. So get after it.

It’s not good enough. This sentence has to be rewritten, and here’s why. That paragraph needs to be redone, and here’s how. This whole section has to be edited out entirely. Because guess what! Excuses and rationalisations are invalid when it comes to taking extreme ownership of your work.

If you get stuck, wake up the hyper-creative child again. As Seinfeld emphasises, the secret is to switch back and forth between the two alter egos. Until both the frogman and the sleep-deprived child are happy with the result.

Practice: Write a paragraph about the joys of writing. Then edit it until it adheres to the SExI principle — and every. other. rule. we’ve discussed so far.

BONUS: Write Every Day

None of the tips on how to get better at writing matter if we don’t practice. Humorist David Sedaris once warned not to confuse writing with publishing. Sedaris wrote for 15 years before his first book came out. He’s known for writing a diary pretty much every day. About two-thirds of what he comes up with is all he keeps. Think of every practice sentence as one of thousand iterations, an incremental improvement of your writing skills.

That said, don’t shy away from publishing if the opportunity presents itself. With so much great content already out there we can easily be sucked into a nihilistic mindset. Where’s the point? Does the world really need another post about good writing? It does. Because it helps you, the writer, understand. Good things are worth repeating. And there’s someone out there who will appreciate your unique perspective.

Practice: Write every day.

Closing Thoughts

Writing may well be described as delightfully agonising. Then again, this makes mastering it so satisfying. The idea is to balance seemingly contradictory demands. Write simply but not monotonously. Be engaging without kowtowing to your reader. Convey your ideas with depth but without jargon. Don’t use 15 words where five will do.

I’m guilty of not following all the steps all the time. It’s fine to bend or break the rules. Not arbitrarily but to achieve your desired effect. So have fun with the language. Play with conventions and find out what works. And remember, it takes a lot of effort to make your writing seem effortless.