Better Writing – How to Improve Your Style

Form = Function

To me the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the music the words make.
-Truman Capote

I want to share my process for improving my writing and refining a style. Improving your writing can be tough. I’ve read a lot about writing. But most of this focuses on the basics of grammar, spelling or active vs passive voice. Very little is on how to actually develop your own style that actually works.

The Basics – Write Lots, Write For an Audience, Buy a Reference Book

If you are going to improve your writing style, start with the basics. Here are some of the things I expect most of you are already doing if you are trying to improve your craft:

  • Write every day. You can’t get better without practice. Duh!
  • Write for an audience. You won’t get feedback if you keep your work private. With blogging technology this is too easy, no excuses.
  • Buy a reference book. Occasional spelling and grammar mistakes can be forgiven, but you should have a reference manual to instruct you on the basics of good writing.

The Not-So-Basics – Developing a Style

What if you are doing the basics, but it still isn’t enough?

You have to develop a style. A style is a strategy for writing that delivers what you want to say. Check out lifehacker and Steve Pavlina’s website. Completely different styles, both earn a lot of revenue. There are many styles that create a successful blog and many more that don’t.

Your style needs to be unique and it needs to be effective. Completely duplicating a successful style usually fails because it becomes a second-rate version of the original. Developing an effective and unique style is one of the most difficult aspects of writing. Here are some tips I’ve found to help improve my style:

Model Other Writers

Other writers are my source for ideas. I read around a book per week and I subscribe to just about every popular blog I can get my hands on. I use those books and blogs as a resource for ideas to improve my writing. I’ve found trial and error isn’t enough. You need to be gathering new ideas from the best writers.

Pay attention not only to what they write, but what there strengths are. This is easy with blogs because you can just look into the comments and see the reactions they get. Scott Adams is great with humor. Steve Pavlina does a great job logically explaining a concept. Leo of Zen Habits is great with headlines.

Experiment Heavily

Writing quickly becomes a habit. The danger of writing a lot is that you reinforce particular methods of writing. This works great when you already have strong writing abilities but it makes it more difficult to improve. I often have to force myself to do what feels unnatural to experiment with a different style.

Changing your style won’t immediately change your results. This is another reason that improving style is difficult. Every change you make can take dozens of articles and a fair bit of luck before anyone notices. Sometimes I can immediately notice an improvement after writing. Other times I need to wait the few weeks for more links or comments to see the difference.

Feedback is Gold

Constructive criticism is worth its weight in gold. Many people ask for help but actually have pretty thin skins and can’t take the criticism. As a result, most people won’t tell you what you are doing wrong or where they think you can improve.

If you want to improve your writing, be very enthusiastic in receiving any feedback and thank the person for their thoughts. When I first started writing a few criticisms stung a bit, but I always expressed gratitude. Good feedback is incredibly rare, so treat it as if you were being handed a bag of cash. If the advice is good enough, you might as well be.

A good piece of feedback can shave off months of practice time in your writing. In a year and a half of blogging, I’ve received probably less than ten pieces of good advice from successful writers that often created big improvements.

Make Your Own Rules

Once you start developing a style, you will start to come up with your own list of rules that makes your style work. I’ve got a list of rules in my head that I use whenever coming up with an article that help me decide whether it is going to be successful or not. Here are just a couple of the rules I use:

  • Be Useful
  • Don’t Waste Space
  • Avoid Paragraphs over 5 sentences (harder to scan)
  • Avoid Consecutive Paragraphs of less than 3 sentences (also harder to scan)
  • Every 3-4 paragraph blocks should have a header
  • Header should create impact and be informative

Are these universal rules? Of course not. They are components of my style. Steve Pavlina often writes much longer paragraphs than I would allow. Seth Godin frequently writes headers that are too vague for my style. Different styles, different results — all successful.

Experiment and come up with your own guidelines for writing. And never be afraid to test those rules to see if they hold up. A masterpiece isn’t created just from coloring within the lines.

If you liked this post, I’d appreciate a Digg or nod to help spread the word.

Image courtesy of flickr


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