5 ways to be a better writer

Writing starts with an empty space. It is a void of opportunity, and most of us set off with the earnest desire to fill it with wild, vivid, engaging prose. Then something goes wrong.

The process of writing can turn a blank page into a dry knot
Between the desire and the finished piece, there are a number of processes the writer goes through which seem to turn the imagined magnificence into a hard, dry knot of staleness. Truth is, writing is tough.

If you cast about the web, or search an averagely stocked book store, you will find about a quagillion sources of advice on writing. If you read it all, it would drive you mad and your writing would be no better (possibly a little worse, owing to the madness). But despite the wealth of how-tos and listicles, there is a chasm between understanding the principles and improving ones writing in practice.

When we use words, you see, we are doing far more than  communicating. They come to represent ourselves; they come to be part of our social interactions and our position in society. They are how we become educated and how we find our place in the world. We use them to impress our boss and sell our services.

And because it is hard to get all this right at once, many of us adopt a strategy. The strategy we use is to make our writing complicated. At some level it works. If we cannot be understood, we cannot be held to account. And socially, the strategy seems to work particularly well. Our readers lack the confidence to call us out as charlatans and they think that if our writing is incomprehensible we must be clever (or at least this is what we think they think).

One of the things that gets in the way is the idea that a lot of people may read what you have to say

The approach becomes ingrained. The longer we go on, the harder we find it to write any other way. If your writing is to improve, the first thing you must do is to stop trying so hard. Here are 5 ways to achieve that:

1. Let go of the social, the political, the personal. Decide what you want to say and write it simply and clearly. Stop trying to impress; dispel all worry about what people might think of your writing. Give yourself permission to be direct, obvious, stupid or even rude. 

2. The first draft will never be read by anyone but you so you can put anything you want in there. You can ignore all the rules that people seem to insist apply to writing. These can all be sorted out in the second or third draft. In fact, it is easier and quicker if you do things that way.

3. Many really dreadful writers turn out to be quite good at speaking. One of the things that gets in the way when you write is the idea that a lot of people might read what you have to say and you don't really know who they are. So write for just one person, and it make it someone you like. If that one person can be someone within your target audience, so much the better. But the real trick is to make writing like a conversation.

4. Have a plan before you start. What do you want your reader to do? Whatever it is, try telling them that right at the start.

5. However simple you made your writing when you read point 1, make it simpler. Short words. Shorter sentences. Bullets and headings wherever you can. Then try even simpler. The simpler the writing, the easier it is for you to express what you want to say. Remember you can always make it more complicated again in the second draft, if you feel the need to impress.

More writing tips from elsewhere:

Kurt Vonnegut
Ten rules for writing fiction
Grammar tips
Writing well by the New York Times