How to become a better writer? It is a question that just about any blogger, copywriter or content producer spends a fair bit of time worrying about. Questions like –
- How do we produce content that engages our audience and resonates with?
- How do we increase the conversion rate on calls to action?
- How do we create content that attracts more readers?
Are just a few that rattle around in my head as they do in others.
Becoming a better writer is often thought of as more of an art form. However according to Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist and linguist at Harvard that isn’t necessarily true. In his latest book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, he says there is science behind writing well.
To write well we need to understand the science behind it. However in learning how to become a better writer, a writer must first understand the psychological elements that resonate well with an audience and the biggest problem writers face before a solution can be applied effectively.
1. Write visually and conversationally
According to Steven readers understand and remember content better when it is expressed in concrete language that helps create visual images. Using language that is conversational helps the brain process information easily and thus associated greater trust with such information.
Steven Pinker suggests we imagine telling a friend who is as smart as we are something they don’t know.
…imagine that you are in a conversation with a reader who is as competent as you are, but happens not to know some things that you know. And you orient the reader so that they can see something in the world with their own eyes that you have noticed, but they have not yet noticed… A symmetry between reader and writer. A conversational, informal style. A determination to be visual and concrete. An excitement about showing the reader something in the world that the reader can see for themselves, rather than concentrating on the activity of the people who have studied that thing.
This is important as with written words the reader cannot hear the inflection of one’s voice or see facial or body movement. The dialog needs to be seen.
While writing in this manner can be challenging, most writers are challenged by psychological reasons.
2. Get around the curse of knowledge
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
The main reason writing can be so difficult is that our brains actually work against us, in that once we know something, we assume others do too.
Steven in his book explains that the phenomenon known as the curse of knowledge results in the inability ot imagine what it’s like to not know something we do not know.
So to remedy this – try explaining as though you are talking to a 5 year old or have someone else read your content and tell you if it makes sense to them. Better still learn from professional writers and have an editor go through your content.
Now, how do you ensure your readers are with you and paying attention right from the start
3. What is your point?
There is an old journalism saying – Don’t bury the lead which means, – tell your reader what the point is early on. Research also proves the validity of this saying.
Why is it important?
Because people need a reference point so that can follow what you’re saying. Your readers are always having to fill in background information and connect the dots to help themselves understand the text. If they are not given a reference point – they won’t know what background knowledge to apply and your writing can seem sketchy or vague to readers.
Won’t that kill the suspense? No just keep it simple and be clear not clever. Suspense won’t work if people don’t have any idea what you are talking about and stop reading after the first few sentences.
The simpler you say it, the more eloquent it is. ~ August Wilson
How soon should you let readers know what the topic is about?
Really soon, not too far from the beginning. Remember attempting to create curiosity or suspense won’t work unless you are a very skilled at writing mystery or telling jokes. Readers need to know where writers are leading them as they read on.
Does that mean, as writers we need to follow the rules and never stray? Are there any exceptions?
4. Do you play by the rules?
We all know people who are insistent about following the rules and coloring within the lines. However when it comes to writing in English there really are no rules. The luncatics are running the asylum.
But, what about the dictionaries and thesaurus?
Well, they aren’t rulebooks. They do follow language as the editors do keep a close eye on developments of new works and senses that are used by many writers in many different contexts.
So should we follow rules?
Absolutely as they do make our writing better. But do take creative license. Languages can and will change. To become a better writer you need to know the rules before you can break them.
Grammar is the logic of speech, even as logic is the grammar of reason. ~ Richard C. Trench
Consider this –
Would you really connect with songs that had to follow the rules?
Would U2 singing “I still Haven’t Found For What I’m Looking” feel and sound better than “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”? Or would James Brown singing “I Feel Well” instead of “I Feel Good” feel and sound better?
So what is the best way to learn the rules before you can break them?
5. Read, then read some more
Many great writers have never read a book about writing. So how did they learn?
By reading and reading and then reading some more. Books and articles on writing can be excellent tools but anyone who wants to improve their writing needs to read a lot. Becoming a good writer requires you to spend time reading, absorbing in various sentence structures, figures of speech, new words, idioms etc. then spend time to reverse engineer examples of good writing to practice what you are learning and work towards aspirations of similar examples of writing.
Rereading reveals rubbish and redundance. ~ Duane Alan Hahn
Research says one can tell a lot about a writer’s personality by reading their work.
If you are reading there is at least one more thing you need to do with the content you produce and it can make a world of difference to you and your audience.
Revise your work
The first draft of anything is shit. ~ Ernest Hemingway
“Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.”
—Larry L. King, WD
Becoming a better writer doesn’t mean that the content needs to be produced perfectly but that you spend the time to hone it.
The way ideas may initially come out of your head may not be the best way to help your readers. That may take some time and work.
In fact Steven says that most people aren’t able to make an argument and express it clearly and well at the same time. In fact most people require at least 2 passes at their content to accomplish that. Once that ideas have been put down, they then need to be refined as the order and manner in which ideas are expressed initially are rarely the best way for readers to follow along and digest them.
So be sure to edit your work or get an editors help. An great way to improve your writing is to tweet on a regular basis. Christian Rudder in his book Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) refers to research that supports this.
Twitter actually may be improving its users’ writing, as it forces them to wring meaning from fewer letters— it embodies William Strunk’s famous dictum, “Omit needless words”, at the keystroke level… The linguists also measured Twitter’s lexical density, its proportion of content-carrying words like verbs and nouns, and found it was not only higher than e-mail’s, but was comparable to the writing on Slate, the control used for magazine-level syntax. Everything points to the same conclusion: that Twitter hasn’t so much altered our writing as just gotten it to fit into a smaller place. Looking through the data, instead of a wasteland of cut stumps, we find a forest of bonsai.
How to become a better writer – Start now
So to sum up Steven’s tips to learn how to become a better writer:
- Write visually and conversationally. Help your readers conjure up mental images of what you are writing and don’t try to be clever or impress.
- Get around the curse of knowledge. Don’t trust yourself or your brain. Have someone read your work and provide feedback on whether your content makes sense.
- What is your point? If your reader doesn’t know what it’s about they won’t be able to follow along. Clarity beats suspense.
- Do you play by the rules? Follow the rules as it will help you become a better writer but do take creative license on occasion to help your work stand out.
- Read, then read some more. The English language cannot be fully grasped and learnt from one book alone. Never stop reading and learning.
- Revise your work. Do not hit publish or send without reviewing your work multiple times and having an editor review it as well.
As Steven says there is science behind rules and it is best to follow them but language is ever evolving, organic and alive. So don’t forget to have some fun with writing as Oscar Wilde said about writers – A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.
“A thought comes . . . it’s a true feeling, a funny feeling. And I get to develop it. [Writing] is more fun than performing, because I get to color with words.” – Bill Cosby
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