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How to Write Well

Guest post by George Benhorn

Nothing will help you build your fan base on the Web faster than learning to write well. And nothing can place bigger obstacles in your path than writing that’s laced with awkward phrasing, misspellings, grammar mistakes, and poor word choices.

What’s a young blogger to do? Here are some tips I’ve gathered in 40 years as a full-time writer and editor.

Good writing makes a huge difference. Consider Jeff Atwood’s enormously popular technology blog, www.codinghorror.com. Jeff co-founded the humongous Q&A site for geeks, Stack Exchange.

I’ve followed Coding Horror for about 10 years, even though Jeff’s tech skills are waaaay beyond mine, and many times I can’t even understand what he’s talking about. But his writing is always crystal-clear and entertaining. For a sample, see “How to Talk to Human Beings.”

Pros like Jeff keep it simple – because they know that what people want is basically quite simple, too – they want to read about something that interests them, and be entertained along the way.

Of course, “simple” doesn’t necessarily mean “easy.”

Down to brass tacks, what’s the single most valuable thing you can do to improve your writing on the Web?

Print it.

Seriously – and I’m not just being a dinosaur, a tottering relic of the paper age. A study at MIT’s Media Lab found that people make 40 percent more proofreading errors onscreen than with hardcopy. I guarantee you’ll be amazed by how quickly your writing improves when you edit at least one draft on paper. It’s a seldom-mentioned secret of top Web writers…and you read it first right here on WritersinCharge.

You don’t literally have to scribble your changes on the physical sheets of paper. (Good thing, ‘cause if you’re like me, you’ve all but forgotten how to write longhand.) Just glance at the printout while you make changes onscreen. It will improve your writing tremendously.

I learned the next tip from Joe Henderson, founding editor of Runner’s World. I started a four-year apprenticeship with Joe in 1972, when he hired me as his assistant. The first words out of Joe’s mouth were: “It’s never safe to consider an article ‘finished’ until you read it again in the morning.”

If you want to write well, you must let your drunken darlings sleep it off overnight. You’ll be stunned, when you wake up in the morning, by the awful dreck that seemed so sparklingly clever the night before. Better still, let your writing “breathe,” like fine wine, for several days, as each edit brings it closer to perfection.

The next tip will take a bit longer to deliver results..

Read. Read. Read.

I love to find good writing on the Web. When I’m in geek mode, a favorite is Dedoimedo, the website of Igor Ljubuncic. Igor’s a smart guy – he has a PhD in physics, and he writes well. In part because he’s a non-native speaker, his writing style is quirky, but it’s always wonderfully clean and lucid.

By reading good writers, you’ll learn what good writing looks and sounds like, and why it matters. With luck, some of those skills will rub off.

No need to read the writers who put you to sleep in English class. You can learn to write well by reading popular authors.

The great English humorist P. G. Wodehouse was a master of his craft – Isaac Asimov and Hilaire Belloc declared him the best writer of the 20th century. In fact, Wodehouse honed his art by reading hundreds of trashy novels.

You can find great writing in unexpected places. Nobody writes better crime novels than the late Robert B. Parker (Hush Money). Parker is a master stylist; no one is better at choosing the right word.

Reading good writers is like listening to good music – it plays over and over in your brain, influencing how you think and act.

But I digress. Just remember, when you’re writing for the Web, the old rules still apply: Read it aloud. Kill your darlings. Banish clichés. Never use an adverb or adjective unless someone’s pointing a gun at your head. Learn the difference between its and it’s. And read Strunk & White once a year.

If you have good ideas, but your writing skills are lagging, consider hiring a pro – it might cost less than you imagine. Hundreds of people with English degrees and bad money karma advertise their services on Craigslist, under the “write/ed/tr8” section. They can be surprisingly affordable.

Try posting an ad in “Writing gigs.” Offer $20 per edited 400-word blog post. You’ll probably get a dozen replies. Learning from a pro, you may soon find you no longer need their services.

George Benhorn is a freelance editor in Silicon Valley with clients in technology, publishing, and academia. His website is www.editremedy.com

Category: writing

13 Comments on "How to Write Well"

  1. SuccinctBill says:

    Killer suggestions, George. I also write for a living and can’t stand it when I read blogs and articles with tons of mistakes. I hate it even more when I make them in my posts.

    The “read it out loud” suggestion is what has helped me the most. Another suggestion is to write a lot. Like anything, writing takes practice. If you really want to get good, read “The Elaments of Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White. It’s arguably the best “how to” book for bloggers.

  2. Ruan says:

    Interesting tactics you’ve got here, George. To be honest, I have never thought of printing out any content I have written. I mean how many people print out blog posts they have written?

    Maybe it’s something I will consider in future though. Even if it’s just to go sit and read it somewhere else like in the field for an example when I have managed to establish my ideal travel lifestyle and be able to write from anywhere. That’s the plan at least.

    Reading – Not many can argue with that and I am the first in line to testify that reading a lot of good written content most definitely rubs off to the writer.

    Another thing I’ve also found to work for myself quite a bit is reading my work out loud to myself. My family probably think I may have lost a bit of my brain cells but that’s also okay if it improves my work, which it surely has.

    Thanks for sharing your experience – 40 years is not something to take for granted indeed.

    • Ruan says:

      I just realized that you’ve mentioned “read out aloud” in your post…

      No matter, it’s indeed worthy of a couple of more mentions! 🙂

  3. Sadek says:

    The phrase ” Read. Read. Read ” really encourages me to learn more things. From my 4 years of experience in IM I came to know that Content is the king, and that’s why to write quality articles we should prepare ourselves better than what we are right now.

  4. Read Read Read Read Read Read Read Read Read Read..Thanks for the article!

    Seun
    http://www.sbabzy.com

  5. Eric says:

    Hey George,

    These are some great tips! I have noticed when I read more books that I can seem to pick up better writing styles. I have a technique of reading out loud books and other blog posts. I believe hearing out loud is the key to really pick up the style. Because I know when I reread something in my mind and believe it’s perfect and than I read it out loud to someone else and than will hear all the mistakes or the what needs to be changed.

    Thanks again,

    Eric

  6. Great tips – especially the one on reading. I’ve always found that taking words out (as in the case of writing) means that I need to replenish my reserves (in this case, by reading). For me, nothing kills burnout faster than an hour with a good book 🙂

    The tip on printing is a good one too, though it’s not one I’ve tried before. Usually, I proof by reading things out loud and you’re right – it’s amazing how something so seemingly clever on the screen can fail spectacularly when read in real time!

    Thanks for sharing your tips 🙂

  7. Heather Villa says:

    Thank you, George.

    Sometimes I even listen to someone else read one of my drafts out loud. Nothing makes me want to eliminate unnecessary words or rephrase a sentence faster.

    I look forward to checking out the links you referenced in your post.

    I discovered a terrific book called Spunk & Bite (A writer’s guide to bold, contemporary style) written by Arthur Plotnik. A spin-off of Skrunk & White.

    Best, Heather

  8. Robinsh says:

    Another article motivating me to become a better writer in year 2013, thanks for publishing this guest post because it really helped me and hope other writers too.

  9. Khaja moin says:

    Definitely it`s poor writing skills which will be big obstacle to have a successful online business.

    George, thanks for sharing your experiences with us, something which you work hard to learn, gave it for free.

    ~@Khajamoin1

  10. John Obidi says:

    Nice article. James Altucher is my personal favourite. Thanks, man.

  11. Betrand says:

    Just happy to find this rich informative content here. Will implement this for a successful writing this year.

  12. Charmaine says:

    Hi George. It has been great to have found your site. I love the part you mention READ.READ.READ. I personally believe in great leaders are readers and just like you mention good writing requires continuously practice to see definite results.
    Therefore, i do enjoy reading from successful writers and am very thankful to people who shared great books.
    I look forward on your upcoming post and it will be my pleasure to connect with you.

Onibalusi

Welcome! I'm Bamidele Onibalusi, a young writer and blogger. I believe writers are unique and highly talented individuals that should be given the respect they deserve. This blog offers practical advice to help you become truly in charge of your writing career.

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