6 Ways I’ve Improved My Writing In the Past 6 months You Can Try Today

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inkIn the past six months that I’ve been a Content Crafter at Buffer, I’ve been writing a lot. I’ve also been trying to write regularly on my own blog and for my startup, Exist. That’s a lot of writing.

During this time, I’ve also been experimenting with small changes in my workflow, my writing process and the types of content I produce. The result has been an improvement in my writing and a better understanding of how I work best. Hopefully you’ll find some of these things helpful in improving your own writing.

1. Exposing it to different people for feedback

Feedback is hugely important for my writing. If I don’t spend long on a piece, I often overlook small typos or grammatical issues. I don’t craft my words quite as carefully as I could, and I tend to repeat myself a bit. Having someone read over my writing can highlight these issues and help me to clean up my work.

On the other hand, if I spend a long time on a piece, it can be just as bad. It’s easy to become lost in a piece after a while, and have trouble stepping back and seeing it objectively. It’s also hard to forget all of the extra context I have in my head by that point, and read it as a reader, who has little or no context about the topic.

Again, having someone else read my work really helps at this point. If nothing else, it gives me a break to refresh my mind before I come back for more editing. Usually, though, I find my work improves from other people’s suggestions.

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While Leo is usually the person who reads through my blog posts for Buffer, occasionally we’ll have a discussion in our Content Crafters room in HipChat and more of the team will jump in.

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It’s surprisingly helpful to get ideas and feedback from multiple points of view.

2. Experimenting with new formats and structures

We have a pretty good idea of what works best for us on the Buffer blog, but it’s always interesting to experiment with new content types as well.

Here’s a list of the different types of formats I’ve experimented with over the past few months:

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The more kinds of content I try creating, the more I find that certain aspects apply to multiple formats (for instance, images usually make a post more interesting, regardless of the format). I also have to work harder when I write a new kind of post, since it doesn’t come to me as easily.

Something I’m keen to try this year is experimenting with long-form content and perhaps even an eBook or downloadable PDF. New formats are exciting and scary, and definitely worth doing if you want to stretch your writing muscle.

3. Changing my workflow with new methods

As well as new formats or types of content, I’ve experimented a lot with my writing process in the past six months. I wanted to optimize for efficiency, but I didn’t want my work to drop in quality. Experimenting is really helpful in determining what works and what doesn’t. In my case, I’ve tried different methods, environments and schedules in my quest for a workflow that suits me.

I’m now at a point where I can write 3-4 posts for Buffer each week, 1-2 for Exist, and an extra one for my personal blog each week if I’m lucky.

One thing I experimented with a lot is the process of brainstorming, outlining and drafting a post. The editing process is usually more straight-forward, and I’m sure many of you would agree that getting those first few words on paper (or screen) is one of the hardest parts of writing.

Depending on the type of post I’m writing and how research-heavy it is, I may go straight to screen with my notes and outline the post. If I’m using lots of quotes—like in this post—I’ll copy-and-paste a lot of material right into my text editor and work from that.

For posts that rely on my own words more, I like to make notes on paper first, to get my head around the topic. I find this useful for getting an overview of the post as a whole and working out the structure I’m going to start with, too.

I love what Austin Kleon says about using paper to sketch out ideas first in his book, Steal Like An Artist:

The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us—we start editing ideas before we have them.

Another thing I’ve been doing more is using books for researching topics, rather than blog posts (or as well as blog posts). I like that I can take a book and a pen and do my research in an armchair. It gives me a physical and mental break from sitting at my computer, being connected to the world.

I also find this is a more efficient way for me to take in lots of information about a topic and process it, so the resulting post is higher quality than if I’d tried to take research straight from a blog post and use it before I fully understood it.

4. More practice, less theory

I think everyone working in a creative field struggles against the inclination not to exercise their creative muscles. It’s so much easier to keep researching or reading or tweeting and not get around to putting words down.

For me, I find reading and researching a post are the most nefarious distractions. Because they are important to my work, it’s really difficult to protect myself against my own tendency to do these far longer than is necessary. I read a short essay recently by Fiery Cushman that explained the way people cheat without realizing it, and I’m sure procrastination often works the same way for me:

research shows that people tend to cheat only as much as they can without realizing theyre cheating [Mazar, Amir & Ariely, 2008, Jour. Marketing Res.]. This is a remarkable phenomenon: Part of you is deciding how much to cheat, calibrated at just the level that keeps another part of you from realizing it.

When I do notice that I’m dragging my feet and should have started drafting a post already, I like to remember this quote from David McCullough:

There’s an awful temptation to just keep on researching. There comes a point where you just have to stop, and start writing.

The other way I’m actively trying to curb my own tendency to waste time is to limit what I read. I’ve stopped subscribing to any RSS feeds and I’m much more careful about choosing articles and blog posts to read online. These are the places I get lost most often in content that doesn’t offer me anything new or useful for my work so posts about writing better, productivity and ticking off to do lists are all but banned from my reading list now.

5. Reading (and doing) more widely

While I am actively trying to stop myself from wasting time on content that’s not useful to me, this often comes down to articles that say the same things I’ve read a million times before. On the other hand, I’m trying to be open to reading more widely—more fiction, more varying nonfiction topics, more research papers—to help me add more knowledge to my reportoire.

The more widely read I am, the more chances I have to generate new, creative ideas or come up with interesting angles for each topic I write about.

Widely-ranging experiences are just as important as being widely read, I think. From my experience, the more things I do, the more ideas I have and the better my work is. Though I haven’t been great at this lately, I try to remember that doing new things will give me more to draw on in my work later.

6. Paying attention and taking notes

This point doesn’t really fit in this post, since I’ve actually done a lot less of this in the past six months. I’ve resolved to put more effort into this practice going forward, though, so I’m going to include it anyway, in case it’s useful to you.

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Taking copious notes has been remarkably useful to me in the past. I mentioned in the last point that adding to my knowledge gives me more to draw on in my work. Unfortunately, I’m not great at remembering everything I read. Not well enough to find it again, at least. This is where notes come in handy.

Whether I have a notebook handy or I use an app to capture something digitally, keeping track of quotes, books I’ve read, phrases and words I like, interesting concepts and ideas I have is worth the effort.

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What have you done to improve your writing recently? Let us know in the comments.

If you liked this post, you might like 5 ways to get through writer’s block or content marketing fatigue and 6 Of The Best Pieces of Advice From Successful Writers

P.S. Recently we launched brand new Buffer for Business, with Google Analytics support, fan and follower growth options and more. Check it out and see if it can help your social media efforts.

Photocredit: mbgrigby

  • Tracy Stonard

    Thanks for sharing your blogging tips Belle. Points 4 and 5 around more practice, less theory’ and reading more widely is something that resonates with me also. It’s so easy to read the same types of books, but you’ve inspired me to read more widely as I tend to read non-fiction within the same topics. Thanks Belle.

  • http://www.lifeschooled.com/ Daniel Gardner

    A down-to-earth post with a great tips, thanks!

  • hosmersean

    I agree that reading fiction and experiencing other forms of writing really help form fresh content ideas and delivery.

  • http://livingwhatyoulove.com/ Robyn Petrik

    I love what you said about changing the workflow and doing some of the brainstorming and research away from the computer. We spend so much time looking at our screens that it can become paralyzing during writing, so a fresh approach can really help. Great article, thanks for sharing!

  • Telework Recruiting

    Love, love this post! I, too, have found that using notebooks to job down thoughts, or simply write something away from the computer is helpful. I will tell you this: you post has made me realize that even good writers such as yourself have to go through a process to get an article done. I feel so much better!
    Something I’ve recently started doing, since I am using Google Docs, is titling article ideas into new docs when they hit me. Then, as I see related information I copy and paste a link to that information into the proper article doc. Of course, now I have dozens of unfinished articles. But at least they’re started!
    Thanks for the great information.
    Pamela

  • http://cupidselves.com/ Aryanna

    Great, informative post as usual!

    I’ve been trying to do most of my writing offline. While it’s in some ways more convenient to write in WordPress, I’m a lot more vulnerable to distraction.

    To keep from getting lost in the research, I try to cut and paste only the most relevant things into Word, and set a time limit, so I have to start writing at some point.

    Then, once I start writing, I don’t have to stop to look for links, quotes, or anything else.

  • http://www.jenniferhester.com/ Jenny Hester

    Loved this post. Always looking for great tips to improve my writing.

  • Deirdre

    This post was exactly what I needed to read today! Thanks so much, Beth!

  • http://talkkindnesstome.com/ Jane

    Love your posts, Belle. I read aloud to my husband and I read to myself. Our tastes in books are different so I naturally get to read varying styles. You are so right. I believe it helps, but had never really considered that before. I have been a note taker since I was 8 years old and complained that church was boring. My dad, the minister told me if I would take notes, it wouldn’t be boring. So I have years of note taking experience. I would love to master the note taking with mapping and illustrating. I think that would definitely be more productive.

  • Shannon Callarman

    Loved this! I always feel more comfortable having someone look over my writing. No matter how confident of a writer I become, I’ll always be in need of a second set of eyes. When you end up staring at the words for too long, you tend to miss minor issues. Thanks Belle.

  • http://www.twitter.com/notalyce Alyce

    Awesome post! Totally with you on the value of taking physical notes and working out ideas on paper before trying to work on anything digital. Lately at Wistia we’ve been doing group workshops of upcoming blog posts with 3-4 people sitting around a table and reading a Google doc out loud and it’s been awesome for learning about the strengths and weaknesses of my blog post writing.

  • http://bebrainfit.com/ Deane Alban

    Another post up to your usual high standards, Belle. I’ve been trying to bring in more stories, as opposed to just writing facts.

  • Andy Newbom

    stories are hard to get right, like voice and opinion they don’t always fit the mold. I like the way you think beth.

  • http://lmythl.wordpress.com/ Violetta L Wong

    I like to make notes on paper first, to get my head around the topic. <<<< That sounds better than making notes in the computer because its all too quick when dropping notes in the computer, so sometimes i cant think clearly

  • jill_friedman

    Great post! I think all those ideas are good ones. I especially agree with the ones about reading and doing more, and note taking. I’m constantly favorite-ing online pages and making sticky notes when I’m not online.
    Thanks

  • http://www.mealime.com/ Jeffrey Bunn

    As someone who writes a ton, I’m always looking for ways to improve my output. Thanks for the tips Belle :-)

  • econwriter5

    Have you done Morning Pages?

  • Shannon K. Murphy

    Great post Belle. We definitely all need editors!

    I loved the #4. While I was content marketing manager at 3Play Media (an online video captioning company), I often wrote in-depth legal briefs around accessibility which required a lot of research… which is a lot like going down a rabbit hole. But one of the topics I was really passionate about was video SEO and that could be dangerous, visiting some of my favorite marketing blogs. As such, I agree I’m not much of an RSS person anymore. Prefer using my twitter feed/lists.

    Changing workflows is also a great point. When I am evolving an idea I can let it play out better on paper than on a computer. Even if it’s not perfect it will get me to a starting point faster, to then be edited on the computer. Another workflow idea? Getting away from the computer!

    One of my favorite writing tactics when I’m stuck on something is posing a question to myself like, “How can I explain X concept in 3 steps?” or “I’ve said A, B, & C… now what is the perfect call to action to wrap this up?” THEN, I take the dog for a walk. I don’t do anything else, I don’t bring my phone, I just walk. I let my subconscious work on the writing problem while I get my legs moving and take in some fresh air. When I get back I go right back to my computer and the ideas just flow! :)

  • http://twitter.com/theirmind theirmind

    My writing style also need to slowly improve, for example, learn to tell a story.

  • http://www.cakephpexpert.com/ Cakephp Expert

    Belle you are just awesome!!! Great post. I love the way you write and ability to put down things on paper in easy to read format. I am also learning to make a content calender of the year and the ways to precise content in simple words. Thanks

  • Brooke

    Recently I have found inspiration from my grandmothers old journals (she has been keeping them for over 40 years!). There is always a good story or lesson to be learned from them! Sometimes you have to look where you least expect! Thanks so much for sharing your journey it is extremely helpful.

  • Sally

    Great post! Love all the tips.

    Though on #1, do you have any tips for soliciting good feedback? I take feedback well, but I can rarely get feedback on my writing. It’s usually a generic “I like everything you write” which isn’t helpful, especially when I’ve gotten bogged down in the minutia. Usually the only feedback I can get is from my editor.

  • http://jessicasheep.tumblr.com/ Jessica Yang

    I love this post! Like many others mentioned, it’s informative and detailed as usual, which I love.

    I try to keep as much focus on whatever I’m writing as much as possible, which increases my productivity as well as the quality of the piece, too. I turn off my wifi, music and flip my phone over (so I can’t see new notifications) to limit distractions as much as possible.

    I definitely agree that reading more widely helps since often times I can get pigeon-holed by a certain topic, which usually tends to have a certain layout/style.

    When I do research, I scan the article for pertinent keywords to see if it applies to me. If it does, I copy and paste the article into a Google/Word doc and highlight the important parts so that when I go back to it to refer to it, I can quickly find the relevant parts.

  • g. martinez cabrera

    I think you are spot-on about writing with pen and paper in addition to the computer. I think there’s just something tangible about the feel of the pen making words. It also slows you down–though my handwriting is slow sloppy because I write almost as fast as I type. (Then again, I’m a crap typist.)

    Thanks for the post.

  • Akash Agarwal

    Wow! This is superb. It’s a great help for all the entire content writer. Definitely I will try it and thanks for sharing.

  • http://cashwithatrueconscience.com/rbblog Ryan Biddulph

    BB,

    4 is huge. Write, write, write to become a better writer. Take this tip to the bank….literally.

    Awesome post.

  • Guest

    I really enjoy this article and have applied most of them to the daily work (and plan to apply all once those with higher priority is done). Lots of suggestions are match with the book “100 things that every designer need to know”. if the book is more theoretical, your post here is brilliant in applying them in life. Kudos!

  • Le Ha Tu

    I really enjoy this article and have applied most of them to the daily work (and plan to apply all once those with higher priority are done). Lots of suggestions are matched with the book “100 things that every designer need to know”. If the book is more theoretical, your post here is brilliant in applying them to life. Kudos!

  • dvonbieker

    I read this as research I was using to avoid starting a writing project :) A good reminder to just get started. Thanks.

  • Lilian Gafni

    Thank you Belle. Great post and useful as usual!

  • Mujtaba Kazimi

    i think we need to know how hard to change .

    i cant write a very clear writing

    dha plot sale

  • Matthew

    Great post Belle. I enjoyed the real, practical advice you gave.

    One trick I’ve used to help improve my writing is to track my time. I use a stopwatch to track exactly how much time I’m spending on a post. The objective isn’t necessarily to know how long it takes me to write an article (although it helps when I’m trying to get more efficient). Instead, knowing that my time is being tracked helps to keep me focused and on task. I’m less likely to take that quick break to check an email or do one of the thousands of other go-to distractions, when I’m being tracked.

    It has helped me TREMENDOUSLY. I’ve been able to narrow my writing method down to a few hyper-focused chunks of writing time, and overall it takes me less time to write a post, without compromising quality.

    Thanks again for sharing your tips. I look forward to reading more.

    Cheers,
    Matthew