Writing Techniques: How To Become a Better Writer.
Writing isn’t easy. As a writer and editor myself, I’ve learnt this firsthand.
While there isn’t a magic formula for creating amazing content, here are a few tips—based on neuroscience and psychology—that will help anyone become a better writer.
Write simply and choose your words carefully
People shouldn’t struggle to read your writing. Use simple words and short sentences, so that nobody gets confused.
I know this sounds like common sense, but it’s where most of writers screw up.
For example, I often see people use words like “utilized” instead of simpler words like “used.” Why? This just confuses your readers.
Arrange your copy hierarchically
At a basic level, this means that you need to know what the main idea of your piece of writing is. In a newspaper or blog format, this main idea should be clearly communicated in the title so that readers know what they’re getting into.
Once you’ve identified your main idea, start breaking down your big idea into the smaller ideas upon which the big idea is built. These smaller ideas should be given their own sub-headings, their own paragraphs, and their own sections.
By organizing your writing in this way, your readers will be better able to understand what you’ve written and they'll be able to find their way through your document more quickly.
Psychological research also suggests that writing is easier for people to understand and to remember when it is arranged hierarchically.
Use a readability test
Using a readability test is a good way to check if your writing is simple. There are a few tests available, but the one I use is called the Flesch-Kincaid.
The Flesch-Kincaid test is pretty useful. Not only will it tell you how readable your writing is, but it will also tell you what grade level you are writing for.
For example, the two paragraphs above score a 70 for readability and 7 for grade level.
Developed by language expert Rudolf Flesch and psychologist J. Peter Kincaid, the highest possible readability score on the test is 120.
That said, research shows that if your writing scores 70 or higher, it will be easily understood by 90% of adults. As for grade level: the lower the better. Generally, a grade level score of or below 8 is great.
Many countries and states these days actually have “plain language” laws. These plain language laws usually say that legal documents like life insurance policies must be written at a grade 8 level or lower. If companies don’t make their policies easy to understand, they can be fined or sued for intentionally trying to confuse their customers.
Have somebody else read your writing aloud
Readability tests can be fooled! They might even tell you that your writing is readable when it really isn’t. This is, especially. True. If. You tend to. Write in. Short. Fragmented sentences. Like. This.
So—as useful as the Flesch-Kincaid readability test is—you should have a backup plan. Have somebody else read your writing aloud and you’ll quickly be able to hear which parts aren’t as clear as you thought.
It’s extremely important that you have another person read your writing though, rather than just re-reading it yourself. Why? Because all humans experience a psychological phenomenon known as confirmation bias, which basically means that we suck at catching mistakes, especially our own.
Even the best writers I know still have an editor that looks over their work.
Lay your copy out in narrow columns instead of wide ones
Generally speaking, thin columns are easier to read than wide ones.
For example, have you ever been reading something only to suddenly realize that—oops!—you accidentally skipped over an entire line of text?
I’m guessing you have, and odds are this happened because the column of text you were reading was too wide.
Whether you realize it or not, reading is a very complex mental activity. Super wide columns make reading even more difficult because it becomes hard to keep track of where the current line ends and the next line begins.
Newspaper editors have realized this for a long time, which is why they lay out all their copy in thin columns usually no more than 40 characters wide. On most blogs, column widths of between 50 and 70 characters seem to work best.
Lay your copy out in wide columns rather than narrow ones
What? But I thought you just said…
Yes, you’re right. But trust me, just as columns that are too fat are no good, columns that are too skinny are bad too.
Laying your copy out in columns that are overly thin will actually slow your readers down because they have to start a new line more often.
Overly thin columns can also disrupt the natural back-and-forth rhythm that people’s eyes fall into when reading.
So while skinny columns are easier to read, wider columns are often faster to read. It’s important to find a balance.
Next week, I’ll go over more typographic guidelines like font size, line spacing, and contrast that also affect how people read your writing.
Write lots of small paragraphs instead of 1 or 2 big paragraphs
This is important for a few reasons.
Firstly, if your writing contains lots of huge paragraphs, your writing almost certainly lacks focus, clarity, and brevity.
Writers often try to cram dozens of thoughts and ideas into a single paragraph. Ideally though, a paragraph should be dedicated to one, single idea. As soon as you introduce a second idea, you should be starting a new paragraph.
This is really just another way of making sure that you’re arranging your copy hierarchically. Arranging your copy hierarchically, as discussed, helps your readers to understand and remember your ideas.
Another reason to use short paragraphs is this: if your paragraphs are short, you can use wider column widths and fit more content in a smaller space. Readers are less likely to lose their place in a short paragraph, even if the paragraph is very wide.
Ultimately, you need thousands of hours of practice to become a better writer. This means writing, re-writing, and writing some more.
It’ll take a lot of time, but even by concentrating on writing one well-crafted piece a week, you will start to see improvements.
Over the next few weeks on this blog, I’ll be going over how to:
- Sell a product with your writing
- Use your writing to place highly in Google’s search results
- Make your writing easy to understand through the use of formatting
In the meantime, check out our other blog posts and—if you enjoyed reading this—share this post with your friends!
Bryan Saunders - Contributor
Bryan Saunders is a researcher, marketing consultant, and internationally published writer.