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

  • Dror Engel

    Hi Scott,
    the link to scott adams blog is broken(or maybe his site is down)

  • Scott Young

    Must have been a temporary thing, the link seems to work fine now…

  • Michal

    Hello Scott

    Could you possibly recommend some books about improving writing skills?

  • max night

    I thought this entry was about the quality of legibility. My writing style is fine but sometimes when I write fast enough my words become blurred and hard to read.

  • legbamel

    You might want to re-word that fourth rule. If a paragraph is less than two sentences it’s either one sentence or it’s not there. 😉 You either meant “one-sentence paragraphs” or “paragraphs of two sentences or fewer”, I’m not sure which.

    One of my rules (obviously, this does not apply to everyone) is that a single sentence isn’t a paragraph, it’s a section head. That helps me to see where the breaks in my subjects happen, and making them into headers helps readers to see that as well.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks legbamel!

  • Sushil

    Thanks for the ideas. They are really useful.

  • el hamdaoui said

    thanks alot for this valuable instructions of how to get a lovely style of writing. but sometimes the feedback recieved might be harsh and hurt for it can seriously and early abort the attempt of making a progress as an intermediate writer. however, if it is neccessary i wish it may be less embarrased in a way that provides him with the courage not prevents his talence from being flourished.

  • Mariza B. Moga

    Hello ,Scott I was able to learn from you some suggested strategies on how to write better .I think I am ready to help one of my students to improve his writing skills.Thanks!

  • Tracy

    I thought this was very helpful. I have been thinking about ways to improve my writing ability and this article helped.

  • David

    Ditto on Tracy’s comment. Also, I have been journal writing for decades. I have written on college paper, in personal journals, on scrap paper, and on the computer. However, I have posted nothing nor have I let others read what I write. As I proof my own writing I find it unfocused, wordy, and with a lot of digressions. My writing is a reflection of my thought process. As such, it is not very good writing. More importantly, it “hurts” to write sometimes. Therefore, my hope is to learn how to both improve my writing style and enjoy the process more. The above blog inspires me and it was a joy to read. I especially liked Capote’s quote. I always thought that good writing was like good music. That is, you feel it. Reading the comments have been an inspiration as well. I found this blog on a Google search. I hope I find more like it. Thanks for taking the time to share.

  • Gabriel

    Hi Scott, after a while, I finally decide to start improving my writing skills, I have been working with people in the branch so very successful with people but not in my writing communications. I think that this is the time I I want to continue my carrier path. I appreciate your comments and I will start reading your Blog to get more of it. I will like as well I you can suggest me some books to use as a reference.
    Now Talking about your blog I have the feeling of seen a move the writing style was very strait forward, and I think very descriptive, not as much as Dostoevsky but very close to it 😀

  • Novac

    Thank u so much Scott. These are very useful information for writers; especially for a foreigner writer like me. I am sure they will help me a lot in the coming future.

  • Giselle

    Thanks Scott, im writing your words on my portfolio! Can i send you my paragraphs?

  • Jill

    I totally agree that practice makes perfect, I think the most important thing is we need to keep writing and event we got the harsh feedback sometimes, however we shouldn’t be too upset, it is hurts, but we shouldn’t take it too emotional isn’t. Keep reading, Keep writing, and happy to receive any feedback.

  • Derly

    Thanks a lot for this post. I actually have serious problems with style: I don’t have style. Bit I think I’ve got a clue for creating my own writing style:” I often have to force myself to do what feels unnatural to experiment with a different style.”

    Thank you.

  • Ricky

    Feedback is gold, then is it a good idea to get feedback on articles before posting them to our blog? If so, are there any websites for posting articles & getting feedback on that?