[Series] My Journey in Becoming a Better Writer and So Can You!

This is part of our ‘Way of the Tortoise’ series. You can check out our other posts in this series here. Check back regularly to read our other updates.

In today’s world, content is life. If you don’t have it, no one will care about you or what you do. You may even have heard that “content is king.” And whoever wrote that was right. Although, I’d rather say that good content is paramount. The rate at which content is produced is astounding. And guess what? A big reason for this goldmine of content can be attributed mainly to the popularity of WordPress, which powers over 25% of the web. In short, there are so many easy-to-use tools to produce content. With content at the center of all of the things, how do you stand out? I’ll be honest with you; I don’t know. However, I can tell you that quality + content are what matter. Search engines tweak their algorithms to help users find quality, relevant, content. I realized a long time ago that producing quality content, more than large volumes of content, is what mattered most. I’m going to share a bit of my journey and how it’s helped me help not only myself but also my clients.

My professor handed back our research papers. I quickly flipped through the pages, noticing all sorts of comments and marks, scrawled in red ink, ending on the last page where my professor had written my grade and left additional comments. All that he wrote was, “You need to work on your English! See me after class.” My heart sank, and I was confused. I meticulously proofread the paper. I had family and friends review my work. In the end, it didn’t matter. I scored a on that paper.

Digging in and fixing what needed fixing

Perplexed and dejected, I approached my professor, as he sat propped up on his desk. I asked him what the deal was with my paper. He clasped his fingers and took a deep breath. “Alex, I can tell the thoughts are all in there; you’re a smart kid, but I can’t take you seriously when you’re writing in a way that doesn’t communicate your thoughts clearly. It’s not just me, either. When you get a job, people will judge you based on how well you write. People won’t see your intelligence. They’re just going to see poorly crafted sentences and label you as a dummy. Do you want that for yourself?” I lowered my head and felt defeated. “Alex,” he said, “you should take a lower-level English class. It’ll do you some good.”

I did just as he recommended. I enrolled in a lower-level English class; I was determined to learn the things I failed to pay attention to when I was in elementary school and high school. My writing improved as did my mechanical and structural understanding of American English. This improvement wasn’t the end of my journey; it was merely the start of it.

I immediately learned how important written communication was in the workplace. I also saw how people consider others who do not write well. If you have ever used an online dating app then you have no doubt seen how many users make proper spelling and punctuation a requirement for them to even consider talking to you. If you can’t grammar-up you won’t be knockin’ boots, let alone get to first base! 

If someone has poor grammar and spelling people are so quick to judge and be mean. I know I’ve poked fun at a few people for this same thing. You probably have, too.

I’ve had more than one conversation with my niece about working on her writing and spelling. It’s because I love her and wish to see her do well and to be taken seriously by her peers and bosses. I don’t want her talents disregarded because her smarts don’t translate on paper. That happened to me, and it sucked!

Leveling up your writing game

Read more

I’m not an avid reader, but I made a point to read more a couple of years ago, and I’m mad I didn’t do that much sooner. I’m not talking about reading business or technical books either. Find good books that you will enjoy! The one thing I have started to notice are the writing styles of the authors I’m reading. I love Game of Thrones and the Harry Potter series. They are starkly different books that cover a wide span of time. However, the magic is in the writing. George R.R. Martin is a meticulous writer and incredibly detailed. My eyelids get heavy when he sets the scene, and perhaps that’s because he does so much of the heavy lifting, and I don’t have to use as much imagination? Rowling, by contrast, has such a flow to her writing; it’s so easy to follow, and she superbly describes people and places in a way that invited me to paint the scenes and faces myself. Both draw me in, but for different reasons in their own way.

Observing how others form their prose, use words to paint their world and the characters who inhabit it, is something one can a lot from. I don’t ever think I’ll be the sort of writer who can peddle books for money, but I can become a writer who people can learn a thing or two from. That’s my goal.

Reading more helps you expand your vocabulary; specifically, it helps one find new ways to say things and avoids commonly used phrases and words. It’s just good for you, like eating your greens!

I’m not going to tell you how many books you should read, just read a little more than you already do. Ping your friends and family for recommendations, hit up the local bookstore.

Don’t get an e-book. This opinion is my own. A beautiful ole paperback is just fine; digital books are a lie. There. I said it! Deal with it.

The timid fellow writes The meeting will be held at seven o’clock because that somehow says to him, “Put it this way and people will believe you really know.” Purge this quisling thought! Don’t be a muggle! Throw back your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge! Write The meeting’s at seven. There, by God! Don’t you feel better? — Stephen Fucking King

Read On Writing, by Stephen King

The book is a quick read that is two books in one. I’m of the opinion that this book should be required reading. In short, King details his journey as a writer, his ups, and downs, his views on what makes for good prose and bad. It’s so damn good. It highlights one truism about me that I am actively working on. I’m a passive writer; a frequent offender! Writing passively comes off like one is justifying their knowledge somehow. Just be direct. Speak and write directly. People will appreciate it.

Another thing I learned about was superfluous language. Using big words when there are better ones that do the job more efficiently. Big words don’t make you smarter. That said, having a vast vocabulary is like holding Excalibur! Knowing when to put it to use is a real art and skill; one that a great writer employs with precision.

The books end with what King feels are essential expertise and his own “truisms” that he feels makes for a good writer.

Pick up a style guide 

The same style guide has been recommended to me multiple times over the years and twice at the beginning of the year. My best gal suggested I pick up a style guide for the work that I do. Also, my friend Lizz had recommended I consult a style guide on more than one occasion. They both suggested Elements of Style by William Strunk.

It’s a short read and a handy reference guide. It does a fine job of explaining the dos and don’ts of writing, it highlights commonly misused phrases and words. Do yourself a favor and buy it right now! You’re welcome!!

Use Grammarly

So much better than any app’s spellcheck offering. I asked my friend, Lizz if she would proofread one of my articles. She came back with a laundry list of things that were wrong with it. Among the chief offenders were the passive voice and grammatical errors. She asked, “Have you heard of Grammarly? You should use it.” Lizz is a badass writer, and you need only look at the WebDevStudios blog to see what a gifted writer, editor, and all-around content maven can do for you. Their blog has vastly improved over the last year and a half! How she isn’t getting poached daily is a damned mystery to me. Anyway…

Grammarly is a freemium priced tool. It has a Chrome extension you should auto-install. Go. Right now! I’ll be here when you get back. Did you install it? Great! I signed up for the yearly service. It’s worth it. Not only for my business blog here, but I also have a high-traffic site I edit for, so this tool has become an indispensable tool in my arsenal.

Write a lot more

I don’t have any tips here aside from just doing the thing. Write the things, people! Just. Write! Sometimes I just free write. Freewriting is a technique where you write without regard to the subject, grammar, spelling, etc. and you just write your stream of consciousness on paper—or on screen. This is a favorite of mine. Some mornings, I roll out of bed and start scribbling on a piece of printer paper, or if I’m feeling particularly hipster-y, on my Moleskine. The benefit in free writing is that it can help get confusing or harmful shit out of your head, where it can get in the way of what you have to do. I truly believe that.

Make a commitment to write more. I know that’s generic. Chris Lema—smart egg that guy—recommended to me to connect writing to healthy habits. After a run, I’ll sit down and do some writing. Today, as I write this, I cleaned up my apartment, even tackled the bathroom and shower. After, I sat down and started on this piece.

Just find your way and make a commitment, even a small one. There are 672 hours in a month, roughly. You can find a couple to sit down and get some writing in.

You don’t need to write a lot at one time. In fact, learn to write effective and to-the-point pieces. There’s a lot of value in shorter, but valuable content.

I’m still not very good at writing

In spite of all of the things I have done to improve my writing, I feel like I’m still woefully off point. But at least I can communicate my thoughts coherently enough.

The point is simply to improve, and one improves through repetition and practice. I’d love to hear what you all do to keep your writing juices flowing.

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  1. Thanks for sharing our post Alex, I appreciate it! I’m going to have to check out that book by Stephen King—another good one is Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. That one really changed the way I thought about writing. Elements of Style by Strunk and White is also a classic.

    1. I updated the article with Elements of Style. Completely forgot about that one! It’s been my trusty companion these past few months! Thanks for stopping by. =)

      1. It’s such a classic. You know, I was just thinking of my go-to grammar resource on the web—grammar girl. I think her name is Mignon something or other, but she’s amazing—and she always breaks it down in a simple-to-understand way. You’re welcome, I’m going to have to start stopping by more often!

    1. Hey Carin! Thanks for dropping in! I appreciate your comment so much! It’s kind of amazing what one uncovers when one sits down and starts reading. =0

  2. As someone who is trying to make writing a daily habit this post couldn’t have come at a better time – lots of really useful advice in here – thanks! I’m off to grab a paperback copy of On Writing 🙂

    1. Hi Ed! Thanks for the note! Good on you for starting out on forming an awesome habit like daily writing. I’m glad you got a thing or two from my article. Enjoy ‘On Writing!’ =)

  3. This was a great read! Thank you for the inspiration. A helpful little “boost” of confidence as I’m preparing the launch of a new blog soon. 🙂

  4. I love this post so much! So much honesty. I must admit to being a language snob. But one thing is for sure: If I had to write in a second language, people would laugh at my writing! It’s all a matter of perspective. Strunk and White is my bible, too. And on my longer posts I have an editor. But I still make mistakes.

    Thank you for this wonderful post.


    1. Thanks a latte, Carol! I think that’s actually beautifully put, about writing in a second language. Again, thanks for the kind words. We need a book club, I think.

  5. Nice one, Alex!
    I write a lot. I love to write and I still think I can do more. I build targets like 100 articles a year and so far I have been making it work. I think the state of your mind, your atmosphere and conditions in your life greatly impact how much you write.

    Your article was very written and the only advice I came here to add was Grammarly (I am a premium subscriber and I love it).

    Keep it up.

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