You can skip to the tips below; regardless, let me share a personal story first.
Getting Into Writing
As a university freshman studying in an economy-torn Greece, I made “getting a job” a primary professional goal. Apart from some summer gigs handing out flyers, I didn’t know how having a stable job was like. I wasn’t that certain about what I was supposed to do in life, but I felt that an experience like that will help me later on.
After a thorough search, it just happened to find a job for a newspaper as a salesman; trying to sell advertising space to companies. I somehow managed to get the job, but I sucked; I was inexperienced, had no passion for selling (yet), and didn’t truly believe in my product. They sacked me three months after recruiting me, and to this day it remains the only job I got fired from. Not the ideal career start for sure.
Some weeks before getting the (much deserved) boot, I remember having a conversation with the senior editor. She was desperate; a columnist ditched her at the last minute and she didn’t have enough content for that month’s paper.
Without overthinking it, I asked her if I could write anything to help her; I was quite passionate about video games back in the day, so I thought that I could manage. She cautiously accepted (must have been pretty desperate to do so) and, since Christmas was approaching, I wrote a two-page article on what console to get for your kid; Xbox One, PS4, or Wii U.
The moment I decided to start writing was of pure terror; the endless white of a blank page is intimidating, even for veteran writers. Doubts kicked in and got a flashback from high school; I gave an assignment I wrote to a classmate, asking for help. She laughed at my face and said these lines “please never try to write in your life”.
But I wrote a line. Then another. Then the words have been spread like wildfire. I gave the first draft three days later; and it was ok enough to let me write for the next month’s paper. And, after I got fired, I volunteered at a local blog, again writing for video games.
The point is that if you were to go back in time and tell me “Listen! Writing will become one of your most advanced skills in 10 years”, oh boy would have I laughed at your face. I never would have mindfully pursued to start building my writing skills; it’s just happened.
And I am glad it happened; since it’s one of the most versatile skills on the planet.
Now, where were we? Oh, to the tips part.
Getting Better at Writing
But it doesn’t have to be hard, really; a few tips & tricks can take you a long way.
My cousin started with his new job some weeks ago; even though he majors in Physics, his current position requires creating copies for social media. He was about to post his first one ever, but he went on to ask me for feedback.
His text was good but could use some improvements. I went with the “give a man a fish, teach a man to fish” approach, and instead of just giving him the ready solution, I gave him the tips I wrote into this one. We managed to implement them all and used the improved one for his first post.
He had posted that into a small Facebook group, and got double digits of poll answers, even sparking a conversation in the comments; it’s important to mention that the group was dead before him.
Cousin, this one is for you mate! 🙂
Look, I am not telling you that you can become an experienced writer just by following some tips from a random dude on the internet. And if someone says that, well, you should probably expect him/her to ask you for bitcoins or your credit card credentials.
Skilled writers & copywriters can juggle with words no mortal can do. That comes from experience; no tips will help you build your writing style like experience.
But, by using the Pareto principle, investigating the 20% of the most important writing problems can solve the majority of your problems. This will be sufficient enough for the vast majority of professionals.
Be warned that, this list will include a lot of stuff that’s useful for people writing online; my professional origins have surely played a role here. However, I promise that most of these can be applied generally; you may move on and you won’t be disappointed, I promise.
Now that we are all set, the moment you all have been waiting for; At last, the tips!
Writing Tips for Beginners
1. Never use more than one mark (! or ?)
Are you here to find tips for comic writing? Awesome, then ignore that.
For everyone else, there is no reason to use more than one exclamation and question mark. Reserve it for scenarios that are of upmost excitement; let’s say you get the job of your dreams and want to post that on LinkedIn. In that case, sure, go ahead.
2. Never use different marks (!?) together
Again, unless you are writing dialogues for a comic. Stick to one; together, they are a toxic couple destined to bring trouble to your copies.
3. Know when to use ellipses (…)
Look, you may use them when you flirt with your crush, implying you have more to say, creating some suspense, etc. Ditch them elsewhere, ok?
You get a pass for using them while quoting someone, but don’t want to include everything that a person said (“Blah blah … Blah”). Apart from that, no need.
4. Limit your exclamation marks (!) to the absolute minimum
Are you excited to show your copies to the world? Great!
You won’t be able to transmit that excitement to your reader by finishing each sentence with an exclamation mark, though.
Pace yourself: Use one for every 150-200 words and never overdo it.
I’ll look the other way if you use more than one for social media copies; however, at least try not to use two in a row.
5. In order t… no. Just no
It’s ok. I know it may sound cooler in your head (spoiler alert: it’s not.). But, when overused, it renders your text unbearable.
You can use “in order to” once or twice (it’s used to define something’s purpose, ex. I am using my car in order to go to work), but stick on using “to”; you can find other ways to impress your audience.
Writing Tips for Intermediates
6. Always think about who is going to read your copy/text/writing
Marketing 101, people! Always care for your customer.
This applies here as well.
Always think of the person you are writing for. You may have to use (or avoid) specific words that work (or don’t) in this specific case. Think about it: will you be formal with your friends or try using anything from “The urban dictionary” in your cover letter?
Do you believe that this is common sense; good for you! Move on to the next ones.
7. Use Grammarly
An all-time favorite tool for me, Grammarly is a lifesaver; It picks up common mistakes, including spelling ones, using wrong prepositions (guilty), and more.
The free version is, indeed, sufficient for many people, so don’t bother going premium (unless your budget allows, so go for it!).
Would you like to find more useful marketing tools? Have a look at my top 15 free marketing tools article and thank me later (or don’t thank me at all, I don’t mind)!
8. Limit yourself to 30 words per sentence (Guilty)
My first language is Greek, so it’s quite easy to see why this can happen, at least for me. Greek, arguably one of the best sounding languages with such a rich history, is also very descriptive.
Greeks reading this will understand, especially people who are involved in advertising. Creating a slogan in English it’s child’s play. Doing so in my native language? Good luck!
Since English has that advantage, prioritize on exploiting that. Sentences with more than 15 words can get pretty complex for the average reader; ones with more than 30 words are simply a pain in the ass.
Always help your reader, so that she/he can help you as well!
9. Don’t be afraid to use questions
Well, that’s most relevant for online, informal copies (ex. social media, blog posts).
Questions here are key to become a better writer online, for one simple reason: people want to be engaged!
Sure, sometimes you will just have to go and announce something. That can happen.
But you are not on social media to speak with yourself.
If you won’t ask, how will you get a reply?
And speaking about writing online…
10. Consider including a (sole) call to action
It’s probable that you have a goal for what you are writing. You could ask for a reply, drive traffic to your website, make potential customers try your products or services.
Using a call to action will help you achieve this goal; if you have something to accomplish and don’t mention it, what’s the point? Your readers won’t be able to get the point, no matter how “obvious” it may seem.
You can use one at the end (preferable for short, social media copies) or somewhere in the middle (better for lengthier blog posts).
Notice the quantity: one. Never try to ask more than that; it unnecessarily complicates things.
11. Learn how to use semicolons (;)
In a world filled with periods and commas, using semicolons can help you set apart; it’s a nice change of pace and a precious thing to acquire for your writing arsenal.
Use it when you have two related, yet independent clauses, not connected in any other way.
Writing Tips for (Semi)Advanced Writers
12. Stop using the same words over and over
Moving on to the most difficult ones on the list, this is something that can easily separate talented writers from just good ones.
While it can be unavoidable (ex. when using specific terminology), taking extra care to alter words that you overuse can freshen the content.
13. Stick to the point
This may depend, of course, to what you write, and does not apply to pieces of fiction and literature, specific terminology that needs to be used, and to readers that are accustomed to specific ways of writing.
Still, never forget this tip. There’s a reason I mention this point for advanced writers; we tend to (tryhard-ly) focus our efforts to impress.
Well, you can use the most complex, “impressive” words of the English lexicon. However, this means nothing to the average reader. Instead, it makes your copy/text hard to read and unpleasant; they won’t be able to follow your train of thought and will jump off the ship.
Do you know what’s impressive? Being able to deliver your goal. Stick to that.
Oh, you need help with that, you said? Then…
14. Use Hemingway
Hemingway has to be my 2nd favorite writing tool; and there’s a solid reason for that.
It makes the texts easy to read. As easy as that.
Wordy sentences? Bad. Useless adverbs? What’s the point?
It points out to all the reasons why your copy can be challenging to read; focus on getting the lowest grade possible (just this once, of course), to make your text as clean as possible.
15. Use Thesaurus
Ah, Thesaurus. Another lifesaver.
Getting stuck trying to find the right word happens, no matter your skills and level.
Thesaurus (and other websites like that, as well; WordReference works wonders for bilingual people such as myself) will also help you in the long run. Don’t just go there and take the word you need; instead, spend some time studying all the alternatives. Invest in learning new words, and it will pay off in the long run.
And, for the final tip…
16. Practice, practice, practice.
You thought I would leave this one out?
There is no magic recipe in life to become better; except if you believe in magic, that is.
I sucked at writing when I was 18, I truly did! But spending endless hours over a computer, writing, erasing, drafting, changing, finalizing, polishing, submitting: all these, indeed, had an impact on me.
Never be afraid to try, people. The notion of “instant talent” is heavily romanticized, embedded within our society. Yet, just a handful of people will be able to find the thing that they are naturals, right from the very beginning.
So, yeah. You may start something and suck at it. Tough luck, buddy.
Never take it as an indicator of what follows, though.
Keep pressing on.