101 ways to write well

101 ways to write well

Writing is a muscle. The more you do it, the better you get.

I genuinely thought I’d made that up myself. Grabbing my iPhone from the bedside cabinet, I logged that nugget in my Notes with the one eye I had open. I slept like a smug little sprog.

BrainyQuote tells me it was best-selling author Jane Green who came up with the whole writing-is-a-muscle thing. Gah! Right. Okay. Fine. Jane, I’ll give you it, it’s yours.

What this taught me was that a) I’m not the inspirational philosopher I think I am at one in the morning and b) writing is often a result of what you consume. I’d been working on this list for days, researching the best ways to write well and cramming my brain with more literary quotes than a Shoreditch gin bar.

Some things stuck to the memory foam in my skull, even if I was unsure where they’d come from (to the point of potential plagiarism).

What I’m saying is, soak up these tips like Spongebob ShakespearePants and you might end up practicing them in your own writing. Or, you know, convincing yourself your own brain came up with them – whatever.

  1. Read more.

  2. Write more.

  3. Write like you talk.

  4. If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.

  5. Show up to write, every single day.

  6. Get out of the house.

  7. Write drunk, edit sober. Not really. I don’t even know if Hemingway said that. DO write first, edit later though. Don’t sweat the small stuff in your first draft – you can fix errors later.

  8. Spend more time editing than writing. A lot more time. Around three-quarters of the time spent on a piece should be used tightening it up.

  9. Kill your darlings. In other words, be prepared to cut a sentence out if it doesn’t quite work – even if you love it. Save said darlings in a big word document to use in the future.

  10. There’s probably never a good time to use exclamation marks. If your writing is strong enough it doesn’t need them.

  11. Your opening line should be a scorcher. Proper hook them in. State a fact and make it snappy. A recent study found that the average human attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to eight. GOLDFISH ARE NOW EASIER TO WRITE FOR.

  12. “The only thing a semi-colon does is prove you went to university.” Guardian journalist Eddy Lawrence gave me this one. It’s so true and close to the bone – I couldn’t get enough of the buggers when I was 21. Make your writing more conversational by using dashes and commas instead.

  13. Believe in the power of three. There’s a reason fairytales are full of pig, bear and musketeer trios. Threes stick in your mind – any more will get confusing, one or two is insignificant. My personal fave: Sex and drugs and sausage rolls. The absolute worst: Live, Laugh, Love.

  14. Your narratives also work best in three parts. You know, like a bedtime story. We’re all still children, really – we naturally sink into pieces with a beginning, middle and end. Set the scene, go deeper, then tie everything together. It works.

  15. Get an editor to read your work. If you can’t get an editor, only proofread after a night’s sleep. Read it out loud when you do.

  16. Stay off your phone during working periods. It will zap your productivity, gnawing away time and energy like a digital leech. I love the Forest app, where you plant a seed then get on with your tasks. If you leave your phone alone, it will grow into a tree. If you can’t resist a cheeky Instagram scroll, your tree will die. Sad face.

  17. Don’t beat yourself up over grammar. It’s bendable. Stephen Fry’s take on pedants – those who never “yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it” because they’retoo farting busy sneering at a greengrocer’s less than perfect use of the apostrophe” – might give you the courage to play with language.

  18. Active voice trumps passive voice. ‘The dog ate my homework’ is more direct and vigorous than ‘my homework was eaten by my dog’.

  19. Write from the heart, no filter. Don’t censor yourself. We’re all vulnerable. We’ve all cried in the middle of the night, all felt the giddy excitement of a first date. We’ve all been angry. Channel those emotions and let them flow onto the page, especially when they’re at their peak.

  20. If writing blog posts, break them up with headings, subheadings, lists, images, quotes and bullet points. Massive wads of text will turn readers off.

  21. A healthy balance of short, medium and long sentences is good for rhythm and clarity. If you’re writing online, shorter sentences are better.

  22. Be relatable. People love to be understood. I used to write viral articles for a Buzzfeed-style website. My 100-or-so articles had more than 26 million views. The big overnight hit was an article about call centres. Basically, how much they ruin your life and all the things you have to do to stay sane in them. It worked because it put into words exactly what was going through the minds of every call centre worker ever – and it made them laugh. People also love to laugh at their own misery.

  23. So, make ‘em laugh. British journalist A. A. Gill writes in his memoir Pour Me A Life: “If someone laughs, they feel understandably that they’ve actually contributed to the joke – indeed it wouldn’t have been a joke without the laughter. A joke that doesn’t make you laugh, of course, is wit. And you grow to appreciate wit when laughing out loud gives you coughing fits and makes your back hurt.”

  24. If a word can be cut out, cut it out. (IOU a pint for that one, George Orwell).

  25. Stop leaning on adverbs. Anything ending with ‘-ly’ can probably be deleted it you find one bang-on word for the job. The ocean isn’t incredibly blue – it’s azure. You’re not ridiculously tired – you’re exhausted.

  26. Headlines with around six words are the clickiest. Test out yours here.

  27. Change ’you are’ to ‘you’re’ and ‘it is’ to ‘it’s’ – it reads easier.

  28. If a word comes to you easily, it’s probably overused. Avoid words or terms you constantly see in your industry or subject matter. For example, travel writing is swamped with ‘stone’s throws’ and ‘melting pots’. Escape sheep mentality and load up with alternatives.

  29. When writing for sales, show them the benefits. You know, the sizzle.

  30. Writing flows a lot easier after a good night’s sleep.

  31. Read what your audience read. Only then will you understand how they’re used to being spoken to and become part of their world.

  32. Hijack conversations. What are your readers talking about? What do they find exciting? Write about it.

  33. Appeal to the lizard brain. Can you make people feel valued or important with your message? Humans release a chemical called oxytocin when this happens – it’ll make them connect with you.

  34. You don’t need to get up at six actual am, man. Unless you genuinely write your best stuff at those ungodly hours. It’s all personal, so sit down during periods your cogs turn easily. Personally, I slink into my best writing at night – those quiet, magical hours when everyone is settling down.

  35. Try another way to say ‘etc’. Listed sentences are stronger by simply using ‘and’ or ‘or’. For example: ‘The cafe serves tea, coffee, cakes, sandwiches etc…’ sounds stronger as: ‘The cafe serves tea, coffee, cakes and sandwiches.’

  36. Always, always, always, be honest.

  37. Use cultural references your reader will understand. Basically, ‘in-jokes’ that show readers you ‘get’ them. For example, using the terms turnt, woat, or yeet will alienate (and probably nauseate) anyone older than 18.

  38. Read the style-guides of different publishers. My go-to is The Guardian’s.

  39. Know your subject better than anyone. Confidence is both alluring and persuasive, when used correctly.

  40. Use verbs. Pluck verbs from the sky and thrust them upon your page. Never stop using verbs. Nothing happens without the ‘doing’ words, so use them to show, not tell.

  41. If you’re writing for sales, remember that everyone wants to save three things: time, stress and money.

  42. Use one solid, unwavering message. Your readers will respond much better to one argument or viewpoint.

  43. Nostalgia is scientifically proven to put people in a happy place. It makes life more meaningful, even if it’s a brief thought about our favourite boy band of the past, or a discontinued chocolate bar (bring back the Cadbury Snowflake, I say). Your reader will associate that happy feeling with you, your message, or your product.

  44. Smatter the senses – as many as you can. If you’re writing about a product, put it in the hands of the audience. Let them experience it solely through your choice of words. How does it feel? What does it smell like?

  45. Make your writing a vehicle for self-expression. People share articles that make themselves look smart, funny, connected… anything that portrays the idealistic self.

  46. Cliches can be cool. People remember them for good reason – you just need to jazz them up to avoid predictability. For example, the common cliche “I fell head over heels” can be livened up by changing it to “I fell head over my Louboutins”.

  47. Write with one person in mind. Have them in the room with you whenever you’re writing. No hostage situations please.

  48. Numbers before 10 should be written out like this: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine.

  49. Don’t repeat the same words in one sentence, or even paragraph if possible. Play about with them to make sure you’re being inventive. Use a thesaurus or type the word into Google followed by ‘synonym’ for ideas.

  50. Don’t be scared about reactions to your writing. You can write the most neutral article in the history of mankind and someone will whinge about it. They’re usually just having a bad day – let them.

  51. On the other hand, admit when you’re wrong. Do it openly and transparently.

  52. Collect ideas. If one pops up, write it down as soon as you can. If you don’t carry a notepad, put it in your iPhone Notes. Or email yourself it.

  53. Know yourself. What do you love? What makes you froth with rage? Who do you admire? What scares you? How do you relate to other people? Why do you want to write in the first place? Spend an hour discovering who you are by answering these questions. This is the stuff that makes your words, yours.

  54. Don’t make your reader work. Smooth transitions between sentences and paragraphs will make your writing an effortless read.

  55. Make your own metaphors – don’t use dead ones. For example, instead of ‘the snow was a white blanket’, you could say ‘the snow was a milky duvet’.

  56. When you do use a metaphor, don’t mix it up. What I mean is, don’t start calling it a duvet and end calling it mashed potato.

  57. Pepper your writing with loads of tiny little cliffhangers. Like Netflix, you want everyone to binge on your writing until a pop-up appears asking if they’re still alive.

  58. Use jargon sparingly, if at all. It rarely makes you sound smart, it just confuses readers. Write words people are familiar with.

  59. Delete common filler words and phrases. ‘In order to’: “She gave him a cup of tea in order to console his tears”. ‘Started to’: “He started to drink his cup of tea” – you’ll also need to change ‘drink’ to ‘drank’ here. ‘That’: “He realised that the cup of tea was actually whiskey and his Grandma was an alcoholic.” Tell your story, don’t drag it out.

  60. Get a cat. The effect of feline presence on your concentration is magic – even if they do rub their bum all over your keyboard. I’m telling you, get a cat.

  61. Learn rules, follow rules, break rules.

  62. You can’t be available all the time. Friends, family, housemates, people on Facebook – they can all wait while you write.

  63. Replace ‘over’ with ‘more than’. It’s one little detail that looks like you have your writing game together. Over 10,000 people did not attend the TED talk in your head – more than 10,000 did. (Great TED talk, by the way).

  64. Feed your brain. On a scale of one to deadline day: Wild salmon dinner, poached eggs on crumpets, Tesco-own beans with Tesco-own fish fingers, peanut butter straight from the tub, Batchelors Super Noodles.

  65. Drink plenty of water. Yes, hello, I’m your mother now. But seriously, your brain is 80 percent water and dehydration dries up your words.

  66. Resist stereotypes. That goes for real life and in writing.

  67. Walk. Go for a swim. Do the dishes. Have a shower. When you’re looking at a blank page thinking “wut even r werds”, it’s time to do something else. Some of your best ideas will come to you while you’re not looking for them.

  68. Set a daily writing goal. Try 200 words a day, if you’re just starting out.

  69. Read treasures, but also read trash. Not every book is a work of art, but you can still learn what went wrong.

  70. Repetition can be powerful if it means something. It can tie an important word to a reader’s frontal lobe. A gruffalo? What’s a gruffalo? A gruffalo! Why, didn’t you know? Okay, Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech is more grown-up example.

  71. Listen to your critics…

  72. But don’t take everything they say seriously. Most of them are barking dogs.

  73. Let your interests push you into your writing. If you don’t enjoy writing it, no one will enjoy reading it.

  74. Just because you don’t know a subject inside-out, doesn’t mean you can’t write about it. It’s not always about what you know – more, what you want to know.

  75. There’s no room for vanity here. Pop your ego into your back pocket and suffocate it with your bum cheek. Then write.

  76. At the same time, don’t be wishy-washy. Write with authority, like a friendly, informed older sister or brother.

  77. If you feel crappy about your writing ability, you’ll probably get ‘writer’s block’ or be scared to publish anything at all. Thinking positively isn’t for everyone, but at least think of yourself the way a best friend thinks of you.

  78. Print out your writing and read it on actual paper. I can guarantee you’ll find things you never spotted on screen.

  79. Overusing rhetorical questions is the hallmark of lazy writing: Who knew all you needed was this product? What could possibly go wrong? Why would you go anywhere else? Is a bear Catholic? Does the Pope shit in the woods?

  80. Don’t make claims you can’t back up. This is easily done when you take information from unreliable sources on the Internet. And trust me – there’ll always be a happy-to-ruin-your-day troll who pulls you up on it.

  81. Write a range of titles for every article. Then choose the headline that hooks you the most.

  82. Do keyword research, even if SEO isn’t your ultimate goal. This way, you can see what your audience is asking questions about. Answer The Public is really good at providing blog idea prompts based on search terms. Google Ads Keyword Planner is equally useful.

  83. Analogies inject colour and relatability. Use them.

  84. Can you summarise your writing in a few lines? Try writing a TL;DR. Since you asked, this basically means Too Long; Didn’t Read. It’s generally used by teenagers in Internet forums. Like a blurb for lazy brains.

  85. Business-to-business (B2B) writing does not need to be dry and corporate. You’re still writing for people.

  86. Have a mission statement. Do you want to help people with your writing? Entertain? Inform? Think of it like a personal mantra.

  87. Every sentence you write should serve a function. Ditch the filler.

  88. Avoid being too familiar. When was the last time you warmed to those charity workers in the street? You know, the strangers who dance their way over to you with a “Hey man, niiiiiiice coat! You. Are. Amazing! You don’t believe children should sleep on the streets, do you?”. Answer – never. So don’t do the same with your writing. You’re not your reader’s best friend.

  89. Scrambling for a word you can’t quite grasp? Chuck in a placeholder you can’t miss (I always use XXXX) then come back to it.

  90. Give examples. Especially if you’re teaching your reader something or showing them the benefits of a product.

  91. Learn the shortcuts on your keyboard to save time typing. Ooooooooh, technical.

  92. Clean your desk. I don’t care what you say about organised clutter. Clean your bloody desk. Marie Kondo the hell out of that thing.

  93. Join a writing community. If there’s nothing in your local area or you simply hate people, Facebook groups are useful.

  94. When you’re ready to call it quits for the day, write a note about what you’re going to write next time you sit down. When you return to your desk, you’ll slip straight back into writing.

  95. Don’t abandon one piece just because you had a jolt of inspiration for another. Quickly jot down your lightbulb moment and come back to it, once you’ve written the first piece.

  96. Set your own deadlines and get someone to hold you accountable for them. No one likes to let people down.

  97. Try lists. They’re easier to digest.

  98. Don’t mislead your reader. If you write a headline that promises a thick, tender steak but deliver a Rustlers burger in the copy, people are gonna feel betrayed. Unless they secretly love microwave meat.    

  99. Practice empathy, always. Diving into the shoes of another person is what all great writers excel at.

  100. Skimping on research will eventually bite you on the arse.

  101. Cheesy, but here goes: have fun. In the words of Stephen King: “If you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”