From text messages, tweets, and emails to resumes, reports, and presentations, writing is at the heart of much of our professional and personal communications. And yet, so many of us leave school without confidence in our basic writing skills—or a plan for how to improve writing skills as we move about the world.
Fortunately, good writing ultimately comes down to practice, and there’s a strong chance that you practice writing every single day, even if you’re not consciously thinking of it as such.
So how do you improve writing skills from there? We’ve got lots of advice, plus helpful exercises that you can start doing today to boost your confidence and your writing abilities. Let’s get to it.
The Importance of Writing Skills
Clear writing is essential for so much of the communication that we do, whether it’s the caption on an Instagram post or a back-and-forth email chain with a coworker or client. It’s also beneficial for personal writing, providing us with an opportunity to put into words the thoughts that we might be struggling to voice in other ways.
When you improve writing skills, you improve your ability to form and communicate ideas—both of which are key for our mental, emotional, and professional lives. And while high school English class might have taught you that in order to develop writing skills, you need to master the art of comma placement and past participles, real-world writing is a lot less fussy than that. The goal of improving writing skills isn’t so that you don’t accidentally use a semicolon instead of a colon; it’s so that you’re able to express yourself in the best, clearest, and most succinct way possible.
Analytical vs. Critical Writing Skills
There are two basic types of writing skills: analytical writing skills and critical writing skills.
Analytical writing skills are meant to be explanatory, conveying information on why something is the way that it is. Rather than presenting brand new ideas, analytical writing is all about taking existing facts and organizing them in a way that makes sense to readers. It’s usually meant to be more descriptive than persuasive, with a strong focus on clear and concise communication.
Critical writing skills are about the interpretation of facts as opposed to just the presentation of them. Its purpose is to prove a certain argument and often requires a hefty dose of curiosity and skepticism. This type of writing is intended to persuade and may be centered around an original thesis statement or concept.
Keep in mind that a piece of writing doesn’t have to be solely analytical or critical, and many things that you write will include elements of both.
Professional Writing Skills
Having good professional writing skills is a big part of gaining legitimacy in the workplace, even for jobs that aren’t inherently writing-focused (and even before you ever get hired).
You might think that writing isn’t important to what you want to do, but consider all of the many scenarios where you’ll have to be able to communicate efficiently through the written word. There are the resumes and cover letters that you have to write to get the job, the emails you have to write to coordinate projects, and the reports you have to write to document your work for higher-ups. The more you develop your writing skills, the easier all of those tasks will be—and the more effective.
As for the skills themselves, ace your professional writing by working on things like tone, active voice, and the use of clear and concise language, all of which will lend you more credibility.
Personal Writing Skills
Among the various types of writing skills, personal writing doesn’t always get the focus that it deserves. But your ability to communicate well in writing is central to your personal relationships. Just think of how many text messages you send in a day and how frustrating it would be if those texts were constantly getting misconstrued by their readers.
Your personal writing skills also refer to your ability to communicate your ideas to yourself in writing. When you develop writing skills, you develop an enhanced ability to organize and work through your thoughts. That can help you in a myriad of ways, from processing difficult emotions to journaling about a big decision.
The Connection Between Reading and Writing Skills
Ever wondered about how reading improves writing skills?
A common piece of advice when you’re working to improve your writing is that you should read more. And it turns out that there are actually some pretty concrete reasons for why this works:
- Reading introduces you to all different types of writing styles, which can be instrumental in discovering your own personal style.
- It exposes you to the structural elements of critical and analytical writing.
- Reading expands your vocabulary and puts new words into context so that they’re easier to understand.
To make the most of the connection between reading and writing skills, find an author you like and read as much of their work as you can. As you do that, think about what it is about their writing that appeals to you. Is it the cadence? The word choices? The transitions and the way that the sentences flow together? By honing in on these points, you can pick up a ton of actionable tips for why some writing just seems to click and start to apply what you learn to your own writing.
How to Improve Your Writing Skills
Now that we’ve covered why writing skills are important, let’s turn our attention to how to make improvements.
First, let go of the idea that writing is a natural skill that you either have or you don’t. It is absolutely possible to improve your writing with practice, even if it’s something that you’ve struggled with in the past.
From there, set a clear goal for what it is about your writing that you want to improve. Unless you’re being actively graded on your writing work, your goal should probably be to better communicate through your writing, rather than to create perfectly structured sentences. It’s totally okay to ditch the formalities in favor of improving your conversational writing skills, and you might find that it makes writing itself a whole lot less intimidating of a task.
With all this in mind, here are some exercises for how to improve writing skills that you might find beneficial—and probably even fun!
5 Exercises to Improve Writing Skills
Practice makes (semi) perfect. Here are five creative writing exercises to improve writing skills that are worth a try. Find one or more that you enjoy doing and try to work them into your daily or weekly routine for best results.
1. Stream of Consciousness
Sit down with a blank piece of paper (or a blank Word doc) and set a timer for five minutes. Then start to write, going the whole five minutes without stopping. It doesn’t matter what you write about. It doesn’t matter if your writing doesn’t make sense or isn’t grammatically correct or is full of typos. Instead, you want to work on putting your thoughts onto the page, stopping only when your timer goes off.
If you need some inspiration to get going, check out these creative writing prompts.
2. Morning Pages
In the book The Artist’s Way, author Julia Cameron recommends the daily practice of morning pages, which entails starting off each day by writing three pages worth of words (about 750 words, if you’re writing on a computer). Originally conceived of as a method to help professionals overcome creative blocks, this practice has proved incredibly useful for helping those of all skill levels develop their voice and gain more confidence in their writing. Even if you just spend three pages writing about what you plan to do the rest of the day, it will be time well spent.
3. Interview Yourself
Put together a list of interview questions and then write out thorough answers to each, as if you were being interviewed for a magazine article. Try to avoid simple “yes” or “no” questions in favor of deeper queries that warrant thorough answers—think questions that you might ask someone on a first date or questions that might come up in a celebrity interview. Some examples:
- What is the best gift you’ve ever received?
- What were you like as a kid?
- Tell me about a meal that you still think about to this day.
- If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
4. Tell, Don’t Show
You’ve probably heard the old adage “show, don’t tell.” For our purposes here, we’re going to flip that on its head with an exercise that has you put a visual into words. Using as much detail as possible, write a description of what you see. Maybe it’s your bedroom or your pet cat. Maybe it’s the contents of your fridge or the scene at the coffee shop that you’re sitting in. Whatever it is, task yourself with capturing it as accurately as possible in writing, getting as specific as you can about the colors, smells, sounds, and other sensory factors.
5. Backward Journaling
Journaling is an excellent tool for improving writing skills. To mix it up, though, try ending each day with a journal entry that documents your entire day, but backward. This forces you to get creative with transitions and lends a novel perspective to the traditional linear method of storytelling. It can also be an intriguing twist if you’re not normally a journaling sort of person.
Important Writing Skills Everyone Should Have
If you’d like to take a more systematic approach to becoming a better writer, then it might help you to take a look at the list of writing skills behind “good” written communications.
What are writing skills? They’re the mechanics of writing that function on their own and together to determine what makes your writing strong and comprehensible. In many cases, those who think they struggle with writing as a whole actually struggle with just one or two of these skills. By breaking down the list of writing skills into its separate components, you might be able to pinpoint where your strengths are and what could use a bit more work.
As you look through this list, ask yourself which of these things comes easy to you and which of them you should dedicate more practice to. Then do some research on specific exercises that will allow you to target that unique skill.
These are the structural constraints of writing. They make our writing easy to read and understand, in many cases mimicking the way that we speak. If the formal rules of grammar trip you up, try to think of grammar in terms of rhythm instead, making strategic use of various forms of punctuation to make your sentences read in the same way you would say them out loud.
The way a word is spelled. Incorrect spelling (also known as typos) pulls the reader out of your work and decreases your authority as a writer. Practice spelling words that give you trouble and make ample use of a spellchecker to ensure all of your words are spelled correctly.
This is how easy your writing is to understand. Grammar and spelling are big determinants of clarity, but so are things like word flow, transitional statements, and sentence structure and organization. If you’re working on an important piece of writing and you’re not sure if it’s clear enough, have someone else read it and point out any holes or questions that they find.
The words that you use. If you’re not a human thesaurus, that’s completely fine. Proper use of vocabulary is as much about using the right word at the right time as it is using big or fancy words. It also means mixing up your words and using synonyms when necessary to avoid constantly repeating the same word throughout your work.
The number of words that you use to say something. Unless you’re trying to stay below a specific word limit, brevity will be more about efficiently getting your point across than it will be cutting out words just for the sake of it. A good rule of thumb: if you can say it in one word, don’t say it in three.
Revising your writing. No matter their skill level, all writers need to go back through their finished work and check it for grammar and spelling errors, organization, and clarity. Try slowly reading your work aloud (yes, even an email), which will help you recognize errors that your brain might have otherwise glossed over if you were just reading in your head.
Write Your Heart Out
If you want to be a better writer, you have to commit yourself to the craft. Write something—anything!—every day, and try to read every day, too. As you become more familiar with the tenets of good writing, you’ll become more comfortable with making it happen on your own.