how to develop writing skills

How to Develop Your Writing Skills

Despite the pervasive rumor that our dependence on the Internet is killing the English language, in today’s economy, everyone needs to be able to write well. If you’re a job-seeker, you absolutely must develop your writing skills if you expect to succeed. Employers and savvy potential employees realize that email, text messages, social media posts, and professional apps – such as  Slack, Google Docs, and Trello – all use written language in order to communicate, and having more competent writers on a team means having fewer mix-ups down the line.

It often takes a special, talented person to write a bestselling novel, or pen influential articles for the Associated Press, but anyone can develop his or her writing skills. All it takes is practice and the ability to admit when you are wrong. Scary stuff, I know, but if it means having a well-paying job instead of working for minimum wage, what do you have to lose?

Identify the Skills You Have and the Skills You Need

The first part of this task is entirely up to you. In order to identify what writing skills you already have, you must be able to realistically evaluate your talents. Don’t oversell yourself, but don’t underestimate your abilities, either.

When you’re first starting out as a writer, underselling yourself is generally the wiser of two evils. You might know a lot about economics as a college junior, but that doesn’t mean you can make hundreds or thousands of dollars for every article you write about the economy. Why? Because there are many, many much more well-respected and well-educated economists out there who are already writing about that stuff.

Now, as I said, identifying the skills you have is entirely up to you. I’ll do a bit of the legwork and tell you the writing skills you need in order to succeed.

The first and most important writing skill is a firm grasp on English grammar. You should, ideally, know the difference between a gerund and an infinitive, when to use who vs. whom, and how to identify and fix a dangling modifier. If you didn’t understand that last sentence at all, you may want to brush up on your English grammar.

The next writing skill you must develop is self-discipline. A successful writing career will often require you to work off the clock and out from under the watchful eye of a supervisor. Even if the only writing you do is for a personal blog, you have to keep a consistent schedule if you expect to see any traffic. If you don’t prioritize your writing, and commit to it, you won’t make it as a writer.

The ability to do independent research goes hand-in-hand with self-discipline, but it’s important enough to be a writing skill in its own right. Every type of writing – from poetry to hard news – will require some level of research, whether it’s looking up the definitions of rare words, or making sure you have your facts straight regarding the Kennedy assassinations. The people who can do good independent research are those who can identify trustworthy sources and don’t give up after one Google search.

Compile Your Resources

Every writer needs a laptop, and preferably one with MS Office. Many bloggers take their own photos for blog posts, and so need a good digital camera. I would also recommend a high-capacity USB 3.0, a serviceable notebook, and a good pen. These are standard resources you’ll want at your disposal, regardless of what kind of writing you’ve chosen to do.

As with your general writing skills, you are the ultimate judge in what is or is not essential to your work. If you’re writing about sailing, you obviously want to live in an area where that hobby is accessible to you, and preferably own a boat and the proper equipment. These wouldn’t be appropriate resources for an automotive writer, however.

The last – and perhaps most important – resource you’ll need is access to information about your subject. This could mean subscriptions to magazines and trade publications, being added to relevant LISTSERVs and other newsletters, or just compiling thorough Twitter lists. Keeping on top of the latest information and submission calls is a huge part of your writing success.

Treat your resources like investments, because that’s what they are. They’re necessary to your success and will require updating from time to time. When your computer is past its prime, you’ll want to buy a new one, just as you do your smartphone.

Diversify Your Writing

Finding your niche is important. It can be what makes or breaks your career. But only being able to write in one style will sink you. If a job with your dream publication comes open, but it’s for feature writing and not news reporting, you won’t be a competitive candidate if all your experience lies in hard journalism.

Having a diverse portfolio means always having relevant samples available to give to prospective employers. Until you build a strong web presence, you – and your writing destiny – are bound to the samples you can provide editors, who will use them to gauge your writing skills. Trust me: there’s nothing worse than seeing your dream job listed, and having nothing relevant to submit before the application deadline.

Remember to write deeply within your niche and broadly outside it. For example, I write lots of different types of articles related to books, video games, and feminism. When it comes to articles about films or music – subjects I don’t cover every week – I’m likely to tie more familiar topics into the discussion. Even though I don’t write about those topics often, writing broadly means I have relevant samples to provide if a subject outside my niche is mentioned in a job listing.

If you’re developing your writing skills while doing freelance work, you’ll find that your articles are subject to a wide variety of style guides and brand voices. When one site asks you to censor yourself, another wants frequent F-bombs. Some blogs want their material to be easy enough for a 5-year-old to read, but you have one editor on another site who keeps asking you to make your work more intellectual.

Diversifying your writing will make it easier to navigate different markets. It takes time, but you’ll soon be able to scan a few articles, get a sense of the site’s voice, and mold your own writing to match it. Don’t think of it as betrayal of self or “selling out,” though: it’s a highly prized skill.

Get Help When You Need It

Everyone needs help sometimes. When it’s 4:45 AM and you’re staring down a 6-o-clock deadline with only an outline to guide you, you’re going to want all the assistance you can get. It isn’t easy for some people to ask for help, but you have to be willing to do it. Trust me: editors appreciate your questions much more than your mistakes.

But your editor shouldn’t be your first stop. Take a few minutes every time you work to look for sites that will expedite your process. A solid image search, Google Docs, and the Purdue Owl are great places to begin. When in doubt: Google what you need to know.

Write, as Often as You Can

If you try to develop your writing skills without actually writing, you’re just spinning your wheels. Although there’s something to be said to starting out with a solid foundation, it’s impossible to know everything before you start. Don’t get caught up in trying for perfection.

Writing often doesn’t necessarily mean writing well. In fact, just the opposite. We all live in fear of being sunk by a typo, but writing as much as possible will help you get over your anxiety when the time comes. Typos happen, and the more you encounter them, the easier they are to handle.

One of the best ways to ensure you’re writing as much as possible is to start a blog. Having a blog is a great way to develop your writing skills, maintain an online portfolio, and build your web presence. Even if you aren’t looking to fulfill all of these goals, don’t discount the option of using a personal blog. You still need to work on your writing skills as part of young professional development, and having a blog is, in my opinion, the best way to do that.

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