The University Network

How To Improve Writing Skills

The benefits of being an impressive writer extend way beyond English class. Putting in the time and effort to improve your writing skills will help you in many steps of your academic and professional life, from drafting your college admissions essay to writing a compelling cover letter and beyond.  

For many students, writing can be intimidating. The thought of spilling your words onto a sheet of paper in a way that will intrigue your readers rather than confuse them or turn them away is no simple task. But, with some effort, motivation, and a desire to learn, it can be achieved. 

With that in mind, we’ve assembled a list of writing tips that can help you jump on the path toward becoming a better writer. 

Read, read, and read some more 

Stephen King once said: “If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but ‘didn’t have time to read,’ I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.”

Reading is how you will gain inspiration, become accustomed to grammar and style, and gain the motivation and confidence you need to write something you’re proud of. 

Read it all. 

Yes, you should read novels, textbooks, and passages assigned to you by your teachers or professors. But you should also read poetry, the news, song lyrics, and even advertisements. There is something to learn from all styles of writing. And you’ll quickly pick up on what you like and what you don’t.

If you find something you find particularly interesting or engaging — a style of writing you feel that you might want to emulate — read it over and over again. Dissect the text and analyze the style, grammar, and word choices. 

Practice different forms of writing

In addition to reading different forms of writing, it is important to try each out on your own. Although they differ, writing forms are not mutually exclusive. The skills you pick up while writing short stories, for example, can bleed into and improve your ability to write an effective speech or academic paper. 

  • Creative writing 

Creative writing is an effective way to expand your vocabulary, exercise your imagination,  improve your ability to self-reflect, and, in turn, build your writing confidence. 

Take a moment, maybe once a week, to sit down and write a short story, journal entry, or even a song. 

Creative writing gives you space and freedom to dive into anything and everything you want to. You can explore the incorporation of new words and phrases into your writing, expand your imagination past typical boundaries, and dive into some of the thoughts and emotions that are hidden deep in your mind. 

Don’t hold back. Your creative writing doesn’t have to be edited or reviewed by anyone but yourself. And it doesn’t have to be perfect!

When you look back at your writing, you’ll be able to decipher what you like and what you don’t. After some more trial and error, you’ll begin to develop a style and a voice that you’re confident in. 

With time, creative writing can even be used as a tool to build your communication skills. In addition to helping you think outside the box, which can bring a fresh and interesting perspective to discussions in your classrooms or future workplace, creative writing teaches you empathy — a quality that is important for effective communication.

When developing characters in a short story, for example, you often have to consider things that you may have not otherwise given deep thought to. Backgrounds and experiences shape people, including the fictional characters you might include in your stories. These characters, if they come from different backgrounds than you, wouldn’t necessarily react or respond to situations the way you would, for example. These are the things you have to think about. 

  • Poetry

Sitting down to write a poem can be a very intimidating endeavor. But this time, you don’t have to worry about reading it out loud to a class or having it marked up by your teacher’s red pen. 

Words are to poetry what pieces are to a puzzle. Every single one matters. By practicing writing poetry, you’ll begin to understand the value of considering every word and its distinct meaning. Synonyms aren’t interchangeable. Every word has a nuanced meaning that makes it more appropriate to use in certain situations than others. 

Understanding this is extremely important, particularly if you’re going into a communications- or journalism-related profession. 

Practicing poetry will also teach you to articulate your thoughts in a non-traditional way. When writing poetry, try to be adventurous and write beyond traditional structural boundaries. Again, no one has to read your poetry but you. 

Even if you never write another poem in your life, abstract thinking could benefit you in many ways, from helping you ace that final political theory paper to pitching an innovative idea to your future boss. 

  • Persuasive writing

More than any other form of writing, persuasive writing teaches you how to dig deep into your thoughts and opinions and formulate compelling arguments to back them up. 

It also teaches you how to become an effective researcher, as you almost always need strong sources in order to effectively persuade someone with your speech or piece of writing. 

Both of these skills — the ability to effectively reflect and analyze your own opinions and the ability to research effectively — will benefit you throughout your academic and professional careers, both in your future writing endeavors and in your ability to verbally argue with and persuade others. 

Boost your grammar skills

For many people, learning grammar is a dreaded process. But, understanding the fundamentals is essential. Just as musicians need to master scales, writers need to master grammar. 

If your class schedule permits, pick up a grammar class. And this time, try not to doze off. If picking up an in-person class isn’t currently a possibility, check out some of the educational resources available online. 

If you know the specific area(s) you need to work on, look them up on YouTube. Grammar Girl and GrammarREVOLUTION are two great YouTube channels for you to start with. 

If you’re willing and able to spend a few bucks, you can also check out the online grammar courses available on Coursera. The courses, which are taught by university professors, are regularly updated and often include reviews and preview videos that you can check out before deciding to purchase the class. The courses are free to audit. Coursera charges a fee for a certificate, but financial aid is available.

And for those of you who are simply unwilling to put the time in to improve your grammar, there are a couple of programs available that can double-check your grammar for you. Grammarly and ProWritingAid, for example, are both AI-powered writing assistants that can recognize your grammatical mistakes and make stylistic suggestions as you write. 

Consider your audience

Before putting your pen to paper or your fingers to the keyboard, you should always take a moment to consider who your audience is. 

Your tone and the material you include in your writing should slightly differ based on who is going to be reading it. 

If you’re writing a short story for a class, for example, and your teacher or professor has spent all term talking about the importance of sublime sentences, don’t turn in something that is choppy and reflects a textbook. 

Or, if you’re writing an article for the school newspaper, make sure you’re writing directly to your peers. If the editor permits, you may be able to throw in some slang or pop culture references that students at your high school or on your college campus would get. 

Find your voice

The author Alexa Martin describes voice as “a combination of your writing tone, sentence structure, patterns, and perspective. It is a stamp on your writing that makes your work personal and recognizable, so much so that your audience can identify a sample of writing as yours without ever seeing your name.”

Developing and maintaining your voice is extremely important, particularly for those who want to make a career out of writing. That said, it is no simple task. 

In high school or college, it is, unfortunately, difficult to find one voice and stick to it. Your voice may, and should, change depending on your assignment. For example, you may be assigned to write a short story one day and an analytical paper the next day. Using the same voice for those two assignments would be difficult and not necessarily advisable. 

However, there are a couple of universal tips about voice that you should always consider before starting the writing process. 

Good writing has rhythm. You want your writing to beat like a drum rather than lay flat on the paper. A good way to test if your writing has rhythm is to ask yourself, “How would people react if I read this around a campfire? Would they be intrigued, or would they start pulling out their phones?”

You also want to make sure that your voice is consistent. For example, if you start your short story with long, vivid sentences, you typically don’t want to end it with choppy, to-the-point sentences. A lack of consistency makes writing difficult to follow. And if people have to work too hard to understand writing, they won’t enjoy reading it. 

Take time to organize your thoughts

No matter what you’re writing, you need to first take some time to jot down your thoughts. Otherwise, you’ll struggle to effectively structure your writing in a compelling way, and you’ll run the risk of leaving out key points. 

You’ve likely been using brainstorming techniques, such as idea maps, outlines, freewriting, and others, since the sixth grade. So, use the one you’re most comfortable with. But don’t assume you can just jump straight into the writing process. 

Brainstorming allows you to separate the weak idea from the strong ones, helps you build confidence that what you write will be intriguing and digestible, and ultimately speeds up the writing process. 

Overcome writer’s block

Everyone has moments where it seems impossible to put words on the page and backspace is the most used button on the keyboard. 

There are all sorts of tips and tricks to overcoming writer’s block. Some people say you should step away from your desk and take a walk. Others suggest taking a moment to slow down and breathe. The list goes on. 

While these are all useful tips, the best way to eliminate writer’s block is to change your perspective on it. Don’t think of it as an excuse to postpone writing, as there’s no guaranteeing your writer’s block will naturally subside. Instead, consider writer’s block to be something you need to actively overcome. 

Most often, writer’s block is caused by an inability to focus or the desire to make your writing perfect. You must fight against these feelings. 

If you’re unable to focus, for example, eliminate all your distractions and try to force yourself to zero in. And if you’re struggling with perfectionism, relax your shoulders and start spilling your words onto the page. Yes, you’ll end up deleting a lot of it, but at least you’ll end up with some things you like and are proud of. 

Get feedback

Particularly if you’re writing something that will be graded or a piece that you intend to submit for publication, you need to have a second pair of eyes on it. 

If this is scary to you, start with someone easy and gentle. Maybe ask your friend to read it over. After they offer their advice, move on to the next level. Take the piece to your mom or dad, as parents tend to be a bit more critical. Or, if you’re a college student, have it peer-reviewed at your institution’s writing center. 

If you’re submitting your assignment for a grade, your teacher or professor may not be willing to offer advice until after you’ve submitted it. If you have questions after receiving your grade back, though, reach out to your instructor and ask them to sit down to chat about your assignment. Ask them what you did wrong and what you did right. Converse with them about how you can improve. 

Utilize online courses

Those of you with a high school or college schedule that won’t allow you to add another in-person class should absolutely turn to the internet, where there are hundreds of amazing writing courses.

The online course facilitator Coursera, alone, offers dozens of university-level courses, including “Write Your First Novel,” “Creative Writing: The Craft of Plot,” and “Sharpened Visions: A Poetry Workshop,” just to name a few. 

Conclusion

No matter how skilled you currently believe you are as a writer, there is always room to improve. Becoming a great writer takes self-awareness, critique, and, most importantly, practice. So don’t slow down or become overly content with where you are. Follow the tips and utilize the resources provided in this article, and remember to keep writing.