Your ability to communicate effectively is perhaps the most important skill you can possess. It enables you to express your thoughts, demonstrate your unique personality, and influence others. It's the primary means by which your intelligence is judged, regardless of whether you're in school, the workplace or a casual environment.
According to a 2010 report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the skills employers desire most from college graduates are speaking and writing. This makes sense: verbal communication skills are a key component of the hiring process, as prospective employees are required to "pass" an interview before they're seriously considered for a position. Before they land the interview, though, they have to "pass" the initial screening process of a resume and cover letter review. A lack of clarity and silly mistakes on these documents often result in automatic disqualification from the position.
Writing is essential to personal and career achievement, which is why you should always strive to improve the skill. Very few writers are perfect, even the ones who repeatedly appear on The New York Times Best Sellers List. Ernest Hemingway said it best when referring to the profession: "We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master."
Those who become immersed in their writing often forget the basic rules, the boundaries that keep a complicated craft somewhat organized. These apply to all types of writing, from cover letters to novels:
- Know your audience: You don't speak to your best friend the same way you speak to your mother. You don't speak to your boss the same way you speak to your best friend. In writing, it's the same principle. A technical manual belonging to a new laptop should read differently from a blog post written for Justin Bieber fans. Before penning your next piece, ask yourself these questions: How old is my audience? What do they value? What are their sensibilities? What is their attitude at the moment? How will they react to what I have to say? What will keep them interested? How can I connect with them?
- Start strong: Your first paragraph is your hook. It's the attention grabber. It's what gives the reader incentive to keep reading. This is where you put the most important information, the top priority of the piece. If you blow it here, then you've blown the entire article, or paper, or whatever you're writing, save for perhaps the more technically constructed cover letters. Note that a strong start is always a simple start.
- Keep it simple: How do you feel when you encounter one of those paragraph-long sentences in a book? You know, the ones that wind through a complex maze of thought before finally illustrating the point 300 words later. A gifted writer – the top tenth of the top 1% of gifted writers – can get away with it. You and I, not so much. Always remember that there will be someone on the other end reading your material, and their knowledge and thought process may be completely different from yours. To ensure they easily digest the information, simplify your writing. If one word can do the trick of two, then use it. Make sure sentences are organized and concise. Remove the clutter and keep it clean.
- Break it down: The previous rule is applicable on a larger scale. Paragraphs should be short. The rule of thumb is that each one contains a single idea. If you're writing a long article, especially one that will be posted online, divide it into sections with subheadings. Remember, you're fighting for the reader's attention. You don't want them to be lulled to sleep or compelled to acquiesce to the many other distractions in their life while attempting to decipher a page-long paragraph.
- Write in active voice: Here's an easy way to keep it simple. Sentences written in active voice are concise and easier to read than sentences written in passive voice. It's better to say "I wrote the term paper" than "The term paper was written by me." The intended subject of the sentence should perform the action. Also, remember the inclusion of strong verbs makes it more interesting to read.
- Don't stop revising: Proofreading your work is important, as spelling and grammatical errors can ruin your credibility. But it's not the same as revising. Fran Lehr said revision "is the heart of the writing process – the means by which ideas emerge and evolve and meanings are clarified." The constant imperfection to which Hemingway alluded in his above quote should serve as motivation to strive for the best writing possible. A good writer who cares will feel constantly dissatisfied with their work and act on it. He or she ensures absolute clarity.
Wisdom From Legendary Writers
Reading this article or an article like it certainly won't make you a better writer, though it serves as a nice reference point. Most great writers cultivated the skill on their own, pouring in hour upon hours of hard work. Even if you don't plan to make a career of writing or write as a hobby, becoming a solid writer still requires practice and patience.
The following writers are among the most accomplished in history. They've penned novels and poems that have anchored English and literature classes for decades. Of course, none of those texts were merely pulled out of thin air. Their wisdom is valuable to writers of all levels. If you're to take advice on writing from anyone, take it from them.
- "If you would be a writer, first be a reader. Only through the assimilation of ideas, thoughts and philosophies can one begin to focus his own ideas, thoughts and philosophies." – Allan W. Eckert
- "Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the most. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out the window." – William Faulkner
- "Start early and work hard. A writer's apprenticeship usually involves writing a million words (which are then discarded) before he's almost ready to begin. That takes a while." – David Eddings
- "I write as straight as I can, just as I walk as straight as I can, because that is the best way to get there." – H.G. Wells
- "Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear." – Ezra Pound
- "Every writer I know has trouble writing." – Joseph Heller
- "Experience is one thing you can't get for nothing." – Oscar Wilde
Every good writer has an abundance of questions about a variety of topics, including writing itself. Those who've labored through a short story, poem, script, or research paper are familiar with the typical speed bumps, such as an unknown style rule or unclear grammatical rule, or organizing their text. Below are some resources to help you navigate the rough seas of writing.
Blogging has made it easy for writers to quickly publish and promote their work to wide audiences; in the past, achieving such a task was complicated and difficult. Fortunately, that means more people can share their expertise than ever before. These blogs (and site) are especially helpful:
- Grammar Girl: Mignon Fogarty has received national acclaim for her quick and dirty blog offering pithy tips on all the grammar rules that confound writers.
- AP Style Guide: It's not a blog and it's not free, but it's essential for everyone who plans to publish their writing. The Associated Press establishes the rules by which all editors abide. Those rules are constantly changing, so it's good to have a subscription allowing you to reference the site as needed.
- Copyblogger: This site designed for web copywriters provides useful information for writers of all skill levels, such as "Ernest Hemingway's Top 5 Tips for Writing Well."
- Writer's Digest: Consult the editor's blog of Writer's Digest to have all your questions and quandaries addressed, with a touch of wit. These are people who've been there before.
Having a few additional online apps in your back pocket can make the writing process easier and more polished. Here are just a few to check out:
- Vizual Einstein: It's no secret that writers tend to be scatterbrained. Vizual Einstein compensates for disorganization by managing – storing, classifying, and retrieving – your research.
- LyX – The Document Processor: This tool structures your writing to ensure it's clean and organized. It's perfect for academic articles, books, and scripts.
- Wisemapping: Help organize your text by Wisemapping, or mindmapping. It's a great way to develop a rough draft of an idea, in visual form, before actually putting pen to paper, figuratively speaking.
- Zoho Writer: Many writers prefer different word processers from Word. Zoho comes equipped with numerous features, enabling you to produce clean text in a variety of forms.