The 5 Best (and Easiest) Pieces of Writing Advice I’ve Ever Heard

I used to be a terrible writer. Heck, I was so bad, I purposely picked my college classes just so I didn’t have to write essays.

Several years later, however, I was regularly writing articles for leading magazines and companies. (Needless to say, I changed my attitude toward writing.) Yet I never had formal training: I never took a writing class and I never did well in English (quite the opposite, actually).

In this article, I’ll share the best tips that helped me take my writing to the next level, despite my humble beginnings. The best part is they're easy to accomplish and can make a tremendous difference almost instantly.

1. Crush the most important sentence

What’s the most important part of anything you write?

(Take a moment to think about it.)

The answer: The first thing they read. In the world of magazines, that’s the title; if you don’t have a good title, no one will read the rest of the article.

Then, once they start reading — or if there’s no title in what you’re writing — the most important sentence is the first, followed by the second, followed by the third.

That’s why, when you write, aim to grab attention and hold it. Get straight into the action and start with the most important information or story. Avoid starting with weak points or going on an irrelevant detour. This advice not only applies to writing articles but also writing emails—start with something interesting, otherwise, people might overlook the rest of what you wrote.

2. Cut by 20–30%

One of the biggest differences between “good” writing and “bad” writing is clutter: Using more words to say something that could be said in fewer words.

For me, I learned this bad habit in school. As a kid, they made us write essays that had to be, say, five pages long. But if I only had two pages of information, I had to stretch the hell out of it by injecting filler words, sentences, and paragraphs that said nothing.

Good writing is tight writing. I’m not saying that everything has to be 500 words or less, but don’t fill it with unnecessary stories or overly long explanations that have little to do with the central point of your article. If you can turn two pages into one, do it; if you can turn a paragraph into a sentence, do it.

Here’s a tip that really helped me learn how to write succinctly. When you finish your first draft, trim your word count by 20 to 30%. It forces you to eliminate superfluities and leave only the juiciest bits on the bone, which makes your writing sound much better almost instantly.

3. Strengthen your verbs

Verbs are the most important part of your writing. Verbs move your content and carry your message.

If you use wimpy verbs, it’ll weaken your writing. For example, excessive use of passive verbs instead of active verbs makes your writing feel like it was written by a law firm. Also, your writing will lack precision. After all, there’s a big difference between someone who “ate” their lunch, “devoured” their lunch, or “drank” their lunch.

Unfortunately, many people write in a matter-of-fact way, only listing general facts about what happened. (i.e. “Paris is nice. The food is good. It was warm.”) But to share your feelings and experience, it's all about the verbs. (“I loved Paris. I felt the energy. I admired the architecture.”)

4. Know the rules (so you can break them)

My writing isn’t perfect, but I know enough of the basics and that's what matters. Regardless of who you are, what you write, or where you write, take some time to learn the basics.

Even if you have a great voice or have something interesting to say, if you use awful grammar and punctuation, it sabotages your message and makes you seem disorganized.

Fortunately, learning the rules isn’t too complicated or time-consuming. For this, I believe in the 80/20 approach: Study the 20% of information that teaches you 80% of what you need to know. And for me, two of the best books on writing are On Writing Well by William Zinsser and Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.

Once you know the rules, you can break them like an artist and take your writing to another level.

5. Use “I”

Back in school, every teacher taught me never to write in the first person. In fact, I used to get minus points if I used “I,” so for a long time, I avoided it in my writing.

Yet once I started contributing to bigger publications, everyone told me to write in the first person. (Ironic, no?)

If you want to become a great writer, I highly recommend you use the word “I.” Yes, you're trying to talk to your reader, but it's through your eyes. Share your perspective. Let the reader learn about you. Tell a story.

“People should know what’s inside your fridge,” a publisher at a very large online magazine once told me. The point is, when you write, you want the reader to step into your world.

“You are writing for yourself. Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience — every reader is a different person. Don’t try to guess what sort of thing editors want to publish or what you think the country is in a mood to read… Don’t worry about whether the reader will “get it” if you indulge a sudden impulse for humor. If it amuses you in the act of writing, put it in. (It can always be taken out, but only you can put it in.) You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for.”

— William Zinsser, “On Writing Well

If you've read my other articles, you already know where I'm from, what's my background story, and what I do—it's not a secret. But I do that on purpose.

Start letting the reader into your life and don't be surprised if more people connect with your writing than ever before.

Best of luck.

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