There is a misconception that writing requires certain inborn talent.
I concede that talent helps. There’s a level of skill that can only be achieved when the right genetic switches are flipped, but that dais is quite high and rarely necessary. You probably won’t be the next Dostoyevsky, Faulkner or Vonnegut, but you don’t need to be.
Writing, of course, is a skill that can be honed and improved.
Still, many writers make classical mistakes over and over. I see these mistakes every day, posted all over the Internet, on social media websites, and even in professional correspondence. Their authors are rarely aware of the mistake, let alone how to fix it.
Here’s why you might be a terrible writer and how you can improve.
1. You refuse to edit
Editing is the most important part of the writing process. It’s where a collection of ideas become something with actual value. I can’t tell you how many times my work has changed entirely during editing.
If you’re one of those people who feel they’ve done their best work on the first pass, you’re wrong. You’re plain wrong. Even if your first draft is New York Times Bestseller quality, it would be much better after a few edits.
In fact, many people spend far too long on their first draft. Our brains like working on one thing at time. When you write, you’re creating. When you edit, you’re critiquing.
You shouldn’t be editing as you write. You shouldn’t be rewriting each paragraph. On their own, each component is meaningless. They don’t have enough context without the rest of the work (in most cases). Wait until you’ve put all your ideas down once before you reshape them.
Re-read your writing, preferably aloud. You’ll be amazed at the mistakes you find when your words are spoken; the irregularities, repetitions and inconsistencies.
Editing isn’t just for your articles, blog posts and novels. Scrutinize your emails, text messages and tweets. Once you build this technique into your writing process, your writing will become much cleaner.
2. You neglect grammar
Careful use of grammar is one of the things that separates an average writer from a great one.
We tend to forget that grammar is a part of our primary language. This happens because we learn our first language organically, without academic study. English speakers often ignore it entirely because our grammar is so irregular.
Grammar is more than capitalizations and commas. It’s the integral structure of your writing; tools that separate or link your thoughts.
Writers often make simple, easily avoidable mistakes with their grammar that erode clarity. They fail to use the Oxford comma to distinguish ambiguous list items. They overuse useless words like “that” and “very.” And they use non-committal passive voice.
Always keep this in mind: the way you say something is just as important as what you say.
3. You think art is mostly inspiration
Writing is art, just like painting or pottery. Like all of the other arts, there is a component of their production that comes from inspiration. Some people will never paint a masterpiece or write a symphony because they just can’t imagine one.
However, all forms of art have technical components that one must learn through the usual methods: study and practice.
You’d do well to learn popular writing techniques that we know work, like building flat and round characters, hyperbole, creating rhythm, and using personification, imagery, and alliteration. These concepts (and countless others) have predictable outcomes that you can use to influence your reader and tell a great story.
4. You obfuscate with excessive articulation
In our early days of writing, we mistake complexity for quality. We seek bigger words that sound like we have a command of our language. In truth, they just sound ridiculous.
I enjoy minimalism in writing. It’s what I like about creating copy for web pages and social media posts: packing deep meaning into a few words. But sometimes it’s alright to use a few extra words to avoid using a single, unclear one.
That isn’t to say that formal and technical terms have no place. In a graduate engineering or medical textbook, you better be using some technical terms. But in those cases, the audience expects that sort of language, so it isn’t complex for the context.
5. You don’t seek clarity
In all of your writing, clarity should be your primary goal. If your readers don’t understand what you’ve written, you might as well have written nothing at all.
I don’t care how revolutionary your ideas are or how important your message may be. If your reader doesn’t follow you to the end, you wasted everyone’s time.
To climb a set of stairs, you must take the steps in order. Build clarity into your work by following clear patterns of thought. Don’t jump from one point to another. Build one idea before building the next. Most importantly, set up expectations (through introductory sentences/paragraphs) before you satisfy them.
6. You don’t seek criticism
You’re prideful and haughty. It’s unlikely that you’re writing will make men weep and women swoon. It’s ridiculous to think your writing is at the peak of its excellence now; that it can’t be improved. People who ignore criticism actually fear it.
Be different. Be willing to change and grow. Don’t just accept criticism. Seek it out. Demand it. If it doesn’t hurt, you didn’t hear it right. Demand more. Take that crappy writing job that pays nothing. Use it to learn. Have everyone read your work, but be humble. You can’t coast on talent.
7. You watch too much Netflix
Seriously, turn that crap off.
8. You don’t read
I met a guy last summer who proudly claimed, “I haven’t read a book in fifteen years.” What an idiot.
Writing and reading go hand-in-hand. Reading is how you explore other people’s work; how you assimilate new techniques, and how you improve your style. If you don’t read, you aren’t experiencing writing.
Prolific Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day, then spends about four hours reading. He probably spends more time reading than writing (and that dude spits out three books a year).
9. You don’t read outside your preferred subject
To become better at something, you have to grow. To grow, you have to experience adversity. But plain old adversity isn’t enough. It has to be new adversity.
If you love hard-boiled detective novels, that’s great, but they will only teach you have to write one type of book.
“But I want to write detective stories,” you say. That’s great, but what about your character’s dream sequence? Some experience with magic-and-myth fantasy would make that easier. Or what about the news report your character hears? It would be great if you read some online news articles to understand their format. Surely your detective will read a police report. Do you even know what one looks like?
The benefits of reading outside your genre are less tangible, as well. Non-fiction teaches chronology and fact-dumping without boring your reader. Biographies teach you how personal motivations and past experiences mingle to form behavior. Romance novels teach you… I don’t know, but I’d bet you, like, five bucks they teach something.
Don’t fear new topics. They aren’t as hard as you think.
10. You only seek positive feedback
I’m sure your mom loves your writing. I bet she fawns all over it. She might even tell her knitting circle about it.
But your mom is a terrible judge of your work.
You can’t surround yourself with people who have an emotional stake in your success. These people usually fail you in one of two ways.
- They don’t want you to feel bad, so they avoid criticism.
- They want you to feel successful (notice I didn’t say “be successful;” they just want you to feel success), so they avoid criticism.
Or maybe you seek out people who compliment your work and dismiss the critics as haters. This is even worse because you actually have some valuable feedback, but you’re the one throwing it away.
Real feedback hurts. It doesn’t just make you doubt your writing. It makes you doubt yourself. But you have to learn to eat that up and ask for another plate.
11. You make excuses
We could talk endlessly about strategies to fight procrastination, but as far as I’m concerned, there’s little to discuss. Procrastination is simply a series of excuses. “I’m tired.” “I don’t feel 100%.” “My head isn’t in the right place.” “It’s loud outside my window.”
If any of those weak-sauce excuses are enough to stop you from writing, you don’t really want to write. People who love something find ways around obstacles to experience their passion. They don’t build walls.
12. You don’t understand your audience
You wouldn’t speak to your grandmother with the same tone and word choices that you would with your boss, spouse or friend. They’re different people who expect different things from you. For the same reason, you write to them differently.
Understanding your audience is critical. If you do one thing in preparation to write, it should be studying your target audience. In marketing, we create detailed buyer personas to represent our different groups.
In many cases, you know who you’re writing to because they’re like you. They want and need similar things. Their problems are your problems and their tone is your tone.
But often you’re writing for someone different. You have to figure out what they want and need. What are their problems? What information do they expect? Here’s an easy example.
If I wrote a letter to my Grandma, she would expect detailed updates on my one-year-old daughter. She wants to know about my daughter’s development, her relationship with her cousins, and her preferences so she can plan gift-giving.
If I wrote a letter to a guy friend, the section on my daughter would be something like, “And the kid is fine.” Because he doesn’t care that much. He’s happy to hear everything is fine, but doesn’t need tales of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and just how much my kid loves hotdogs.
If I sent my Grandma a letter without updates on my daughter, she’d call me angrily. If I included them in the letter to my friend, he’d probably stop reading.
Understanding your audience is a skill you have to develop because, in reality, that group will likely be pretty homogenous. You have to segment them down and figure out their sub-problems and sub-desires.
If you wrote a blog about doing medical transcription from home, you might find that some people are doing it because they love being in the medical field without all the investment. Others like the freedom of a job they can do from anywhere. Or maybe some are disabled and need work on their own schedule. These sub-groups have their own needs that you have to address.
13. You try to be the next GRR Martin/Rowling/King
“I’m going to write a ten-part fantasy epic,” they say. What have you written before? “Nothing.”
The world’s biggest writers didn’t get there on the first shot. Even the first-time authors who had massive success have a trail of bad writing and rejection letters behind them. Hell, even the best owe their careers to steadfast editors who tore their writing to pieces.
Everyone starts out writing crap. Just the worst, pretentious, superfluous, wordy crap. If you expect to bang out a masterpiece your first day at the keyboard, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Don’t restart over and over because “it’s just not epic enough.”
Solution: write something. Then write something a little better. Then write something a bit better. Keep doing that until you’re famous.
14. You don’t finish anything
It’s obvious that you aren’t a writer if you don’t write, but I’d take it one step further. You aren’t a writer if you don’t finish something. If your computer is full of beginnings that trail off, you haven’t really said anything.
Writing is always storytelling. Whether you’re writing a murder thriller or the back of a shampoo bottle, you’re telling a story. Sometimes the story is inherently boring, but you still have to take the reader from one point to another.
Always mind the big picture. Where is your story going?
15. You don’t live a full life
Some would-be writers complain that they “don’t have anything worth writing about.”
The best writing comes from experience. They fuel your artistic passions. Don’t accept the “brooding writer” trap. Don’t to sit in dark rooms and muse about pain until something amazing comes out.
Go out and do incredible and challenging things. Absorb everything. Keep a piece of notebook paper in your back pocket with a pen. Jot notes down if something intriguing happens. It doesn’t have to be a life-changing idea.
Is that man wearing the wrong beard type for his face? Maybe it made him look awkward. That could be a potential character. Did an old woman drop a tidbit of advice? Perhaps that could be a blog post.
Inspiration is everywhere.
16. You don’t recognize your own bad writing
When I look at things I wrote ten years ago, I fight nausea. My sentences were flowery and congested. I took forever to make a point. I used way too many adverbs.
Fortunately, my skills at recognizing my own trash have caught up to me, so I can see when today’s writing is garbage.
The first step is to accept that you will create some bad writing. Recognizing it, however, isn’t so simple. That comes from years of editing your own work.
17. You worry about other people’s success
50 Shades of Gray, Twilight, The Hunger Games… There’s no doubt that from a writing perspective, these books are terrible. I’ve seen plenty of websites and social media profiles with poorly written content, but they maintain massive followings. There is something about them that people find appealing, otherwise they wouldn’t be bestsellers and web traffic monsters.
Instead of railing against their inadequacies, find out what it is about them that people like. Do they invoke popular themes and architypes? Do they speak directly to a niche group? Do they touch on something emotional and raw that compel people to read more?
Just because something is written poorly doesn’t mean it lacks value. Figure out what that value is, then exploit it with excellent writing and your success will come.
18. You’re insecure over the title “writer”
I’ve met countless people who literally write eight hours a day who aren’t secure enough to call themselves a writer. These people are paid to write. Maybe there’s a stigma with the title. Maybe “writer” makes people assume financial instability or an inability to hold a real job.
“Writer” can be as meaningful or as meaningless as you want it to be. I’m a golfer because I’ve done it a few times and had fun. Tiger Woods is a golfer because he’s an incredible player who makes millions of dollars. There’s a huge gap between us, but my inability to play at Tiger’s level doesn’t stop me from doing it every once in a while.
You can claim the title if you want. No one cares. But get past your insecurities and write.
19. You don’t write benefits
Landing page and ad copy authors have heard this one a million times, but it’s worth repeating. People aren’t persuaded by features or technicalities. We like to hear how products and services directly make our own lives easier and more comfortable.
You didn’t buy your car because it gets 35 miles to the gallon. You bought it because its fuel efficiency saves you money. You didn’t buy that sunblock because it’s SPF 30. You bought it because it helps prevent skin cancer.
Always ask yourself, “What does my audience want?”
20. You overuse adverbs
An adverb is a word that modifies a verb or adjective. Novice writers attempt to use them as simple ways of adding depth to their writing, but they usually fall flat. Here’s an example of adverb use:
Nina raised her hands fearfully.
Sure, OK, she’s afraid. We know that because the author told us. But he didn’t show us Nina’s fear. He stated it in a matter-of-fact manner. We know she’s afraid, but it doesn’t have any weight.
To make the scene better, the author should show us Nina’s trembling lips, her protective stance and her darting eyes. If you build the scene properly, the reader’s mind will generate more than enough emotion and gravity.
21. You obsess over the rules
I’m the first one to admit that there are rules to writing. That is, there are rules you should follow if you want people to read and enjoy your work. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a Nazi about them.
It’s a busy world and the Internet has created millions of amateur writers. Everyone can develop their own platform if they invest enough hard work and time. Getting noticed is a tremendous task. So there’s value in breaking some rules to get your stuff read.
It’s fine if you break a rule every once in a while, but make sure you know why you’re breaking it.
22. You don’t write
You may have pages of notes and ideas. You might have snippets of potential articles and stories. You may even have a fancy blog website ready to go.
But if you don’t write, you’re a terrible writer. Like anything else, writing skills are honed through constant practice. The best writers are obsessive about it.
Where do you go from here?
While there are plenty of ways to be a bad writer, it’s not a hole you can’t climb out of. Writing doesn’t require expensive supplies or gym/course/range/court time. It’s doesn’t demand car trips to exotic places and dangerous adventures.
It only demands your mental sweat and your time.