This was originally published on swombat.com on December 6th, 2010.

Writing is an essential skill for entrepreneurs. How do you get better at it?

Everyone can be good at writing, but not everyone makes the consistent effort to get there. Writing is not a skill that you can pick up overnight. Much like learning to speak a language, or like learning to start and run businesses, becoming a good writer is a journey measured in years.

This is a method to markedly improve your writing:

1. Practise often

If you look for them, you can find millions of occasion to write. Join almost any active online community and you will have many chances a day to write about whatever it is you have an opinion about. An active business will generate countless emails, each of which is an opportunity to write. And, of course, there are more traditional options, like blogging or otherwise writing for an audience.

You will not get better at writing without writing a lot, so the first thing to do is to make sure you’re writing something significant almost every single day. Find some excuse for it – any excuse will do – and keep it up.

2. Practise deliberately

Practicing is a start, but to be efficient you also want to extract the maximum amount of learning from your efforts.

For this, you need a way to evaluate your writing. Ideally, this needs to happen without involving anyone else; otherwise, you’ll find that your improvement depends on other people, which will slow you down or even stop you.

To evaluate your own writing, first you need to care. Most people who write horribly do so because they don’t care enough to even re-read their own words once, before sending them to some hapless recipient who will suffer through deciphering them.

Instead, do this:

  1. Read it out loud to yourself. Mark any points where you stumble in your speech as problem areas.
  2. Consider every sentence, one by one. Does it have a point? Is the point clear? Could it be more concise? Could it be cut entirely? Mark problem areas.
  3. Consider every paragraph. Does it have a point? Is the point clear? Could it be more concise? Could it be cut entirely? Mark problem areas.
  4. Go through all the problem areas and fix them.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 until you can’t stand looking at your own writing anymore (it can always be improved).

It’s often best to let writing rest for a day before evaluating it, too. Errors stand out more when you approach your writing with a fresh mind. Generally, it is better to review your writing before you publish it, but retrospective reviews work too.

3. Feed the machine

Last but not least, expose yourself to great writing continually. Read great books, particularly fiction (which tends to be better written on average). Read classics. Read modern stuff. Just read, read, read, every day.

When learning to write, every good book is a book about writing. Pay attention to the writing and you can learn from it. Look out for particularly good writing, or turns of phrase that you like. Also, look out for words that you don’t understand. Every time you’re not perfectly clear about the meaning of a word, look it up instead of guessing. You should only use a word when you know exactly what it means.

In conclusion…

  1. Write often – you won’t get better at writing without spending a lot of time writing
  2. Review your own writing – You’ll get better quicker if you deliberately look to improve
  3. Read often – exposing yourself to great writing will provide material to feed the automatically self-improving machine that is your subconscious

Do this for a few years and you will be, at the very least, a good writer. This will benefit not only your businesses, but all areas of your life.

2017 Thoughts

I think this article has stood the test of time. I stand by my advice. I would add a thought to it:

First, it now seems to me that once basic competency at writing is there, good writing tends to come from clear thinking. When we struggle to write something down or to explain it, it’s often because we don’t fully understand it ourselves. This clarity must cover not only the subject you are writing about, but also the impact you want to have on the reader. When you both know what you’re talking about and what you want to convey to the reader, good writing comes more naturally.

Even an amateur wordsmith, writing clumsily in a foreign language, but having mastered both topic and desired impact, will do a better job at writing than a poet who doesn’t know what they’re writing about and to what effect.