Nine Tips for Writing Like a Pro

Clear, impactful writing is not easy to achieve. If you want to improve your writing skills and connect with your readers, these tips can help.

1. Know your audience.

Writing is a form of communication, and if you don’t speak the same language as your readers, you won’t reach them. Keep in mind that your readers may not know—or remember—the meaning of jargon and technical terms that come naturally to you. On the other hand, if you are writing for fellow experts, you don’t want to bog them down with pedantic explanations.

2. Find something interesting to say.

If you think a topic is boring, so will your readers. There’s something fascinating about every topic, no matter how obscure. As a writer, your job is to find it and highlight it.

3. Keep it simple.

There’s nothing wrong with short sentences and small words. Most journalists write stories at a middle or high school reading level. Challenge yourself to communicate a complex idea with simple language. You might be surprised at how much better you end up grasping the topic you’re trying to explain.

To test your story’s simplicity, try reading it out loud. If a sentence is hard for you to say, it’s probably hard for readers to understand. You can also upload your story to the Lexile Analyzer, which automatically determines a text’s reading level.  

4. Keep it short.

For most readers, time is a scarce resource. So respect your readers’ time and communicate your message as directly as possible. When you’re editing your work, always question whether each word, sentence, and paragraph really needs to be there. If it doesn’t, don’t be afraid to cut, cut, cut—even if you spent hours constructing that perfect turn of phrase. As William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

5. Use active voice.

“The dog ate the pizza.” Subject (dog), verb (ate), object (pizza)—that’s active voice. Passive voice, in contrast, switches the order, so the object comes before the verb. Academic writers often use passive voice because it sounds more formal, but you’d do well to avoid it. For one thing, passive voice is wordier than active voice:

Passive: The bill was signed by President Clinton. (7 words)
Active: President Clinton signed the bill. (5 words)

Passive voice can also reduce clarity by hiding the agent responsible for an action:

Passive: In 146 B.C., the historic city of Carthage was burnt to the ground. (By who?)
Active: In 146 B.C., the Romans burned the historic city of Carthage to the ground.

6. Build a strong structure.

Structure helps determines a piece of writing’s pacing and context. A good structure provides a clear framework that reinforces the reader's understanding. Some writers prefer to make outlines to help with structure, while others like to jump right into the writing process. Whatever approach you take, use sections to divide your writing into digestible bites.

Also consider how your writing relates to the images and data that appears alongside it. Make sure the visuals relate naturally to nearby prose. You can also use visuals to break up long blocks of text. At the same time, be judicious in your use of visuals, and don’t flood your story with images and data visualizations without text to back them up.  

7. Get it on the page.

If you don’t know what to say or how to start, don’t worry—just write. Or just outline, if you prefer to write with some structure in mind. Whatever your preferred technique is, don’t let yourself stare at a blank page or, worse, get distracted. Accept that your initial outline or first draft will be deeply flawed, and plow ahead anyway. You’ll have a chance to fix it during the editing stage.

8. Edit with fresh eyes.

Editing is essential to high-quality writing. Ideally, give yourself time for a good night’s sleep before you start editing your draft. At the very least, try to take a short break between writing and editing, so your mind has time to shift gears.

To help catch errors, try changing your manuscript’s font — you might be surprised at how many mistakes will pop out that you’d previously glossed over. Friends or colleagues can also provide fresh sets of eyes, so don’t be shy about asking them to look over your work.

9. Read.

Good writers are good readers. The more you read, the more you’ll internalize other authors’ styles and techniques.

You don’t have to limit this effect to the subconscious level. Re-read some of your favorite books or articles. When you encounter a sentence or paragraph that moves you, read it again closely, and take notes.


Additional Resources

The Economist Style Guide: http://www.economist.com/styleguide/introduction

Lexile Analyzer: https://lexile.com/analyzer/

Title Capitalization Tool: http://titlecapitalization.com/

Grammarly - wording and spelling checker: www.grammarly.com