So, you want to write for a living?
Maybe, you just want to improve your communication skills.
Speaking of skills, however…
How confident do you feel as a writer?
- Do you feel like you can tackle multiple genres?
- Do you feel like you can hold your own on the page?
- Do you feel relaxed and hopeful when you submit your work for review or publication?
Maybe, and I’m sure this applies to lots of writers, you’re not quite sure of yourself:
- You secretly wonder if you have what it takes.
- You wonder if you have enough education.
- You wonder if you’re going to make a fool of yourself when you self-publish your next big project…
These thoughts tend to make your stomach churn, don’t they?
These are valid concerns, but you never gave them much thought when you started writing.
You thought you’d take your passion for words straight to the bank.
In the beginning your thoughts were clear:
- I can do this.
- I’m a much better writer than so and so.
- I’m creative, intuitive, and flexible.
- How hard can it be? I’m already a natural.
Over time, however, you started to pay attention. You began to appreciate the effort and dedication it takes to write something extraordinary.
If you’re being honest, you’re beginning to appreciate the dedication it takes to write anything at all.
And this bothers you, more and more each day. You wonder if you can become a serious writer, a respected writer, someone others look to for quality and inspiration.
What you need now is a reality check—a set of simple, practical guidelines you can use to improve your craft.
And it doesn’t have to take years of study, either.
This simple set of rules will act as a roadmap. You can refer back to them, ticking the boxes as you learn and grow.
The best part?
They’re applicable to all levels—from beginning bloggers to experienced writers.
Let’s dive in to the seven rules:
Seven Golden Rules for Successful Writing in Any Genre
1. KISS: Keep it Simple, Stupid! The Basics of Better Writing
Don’t let anyone fool you; the basics matter.
What ever happened to the simple, declarative sentence?
Right now, I’m looking at a stack of 200 college essays. After years of teaching, I know what to expect from a quarter of the submissions: papers that take more time to grade than they took to write.
The second quarter presents a bigger problem…
They’re trying to impress me, to impress themselves, to impress their peers.
These papers scream, “look at me; aren’t I smart? Aren’t I funny, clever, special?”
Often, these well-meaning students end up churning out crap: long, impossible, convoluted sentences. After five lines of prose without punctuation, I’ve forgotten the subject, the point of the sentence altogether.
And it’s not just the classroom.
My students put me in a unique position. I get to see writing trends at the ground level.
This wordy, meandering style fills the digital realm. You’ll see it in books, blogs, and social media.
Verbosity doesn’t equal quality.
Brilliant writing is simple, clear, and direct. There’s no need to bury it beneath layers of BS.
My students spend an entire class period writing simple declarative sentences, and they do a great job.
A week later, snapping back like a rubber band, their writing returns to its original state.
I try not to take it personally. It’s just one of those quirks of the ego, part of the human condition. When we transfer our thoughts onto the page, we think they must be epic.
They need to be art!
Keep it simple, people.
Say what you mean. Worry about the content, not the packaging. Imagine unwrapping twelve layers of decorative paper and bows to find an empty box inside!
Write simple sentences—lots of them. Later, you can add layers of interest, varying your sentence lengths for effect.
You don’t have to reveal everything in a single sentence. And if you’re worried, you don’t have to keep everything short, either. The short sentence mantra is just another writing myth.
Aim for balance.
Take your time; make your words count.
Need instant feedback?
Try the Hemingway App. This free tool evaluates your writing for grammar, readability, and sentence structure.
2. Understand and Respect Your Audience
Thinking about your audience seems obvious, right?
Everyone assumes they understand their audience.
In reality? Not so much.
Whether you write fiction or stock market tips, you need to understand your reader.
Have you created a profile of your reader? Do you know his/her interests, education level, prior knowledge, or experience in the subject area? Is your reader a millennial, a GenXer, a baby boomer?
Does your prose match your target audience?
Do you know what keeps your reader up at night, what they most desire, value, or fear?
If not, make time for some research. Otherwise, you could waste years writing the wrong content for the wrong audience.
- Head over to Feedly, and search for the top-performing websites in your genre (look at readership levels, posting schedules, comment activity, followers on social media, etc.).
- Conduct a Google search, using the top keywords in your genre.
- Try Followerwonk. They list the top Twitter accounts by keyword or hashtag. Analyze their followers. What types of content are most retweeted? What is their readership commenting on?
Compile a list of five to ten popular websites in your genre. Read their content. Look at their blog comments. What’s unique about their offerings?
How would you characterize the tone of their communication? Is it formal, casual, businesslike, humorous, irreverent?
When people respond to their content, what do they say? What moves them to comment?
Finally, spend some time on Q and A sites and forums. Find out exactly what your audience wants to know. What information gaps can you fill?
When you understand your audience, your job becomes easier. When you can place yourself comfortably within a genre, you’ll know what works and what fails.
Make the effort to really know your audience.
It’ll pay dividends.
3. Brush Up on Your Punctuation Skills
Nothing drives me to the x box (not that x box–the one in the upper right corner of my web browser) faster than poor grammar and punctuation. If a writer can’t bother to learn a few important rules of the craft, the content suffers.
Punctuation changes everything.
Think I’m kidding?
Here’s a popular internet meme:
A woman without her man is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.
Seriously, folks, punctuation matters.
The absence of a single comma could cost you millions. Just ask the Oakhurst Dairy Company in Portland, Maine. They were certain the Oxford comma was unnecessary.
The Oxford comma can help alleviate unnecessary confusion.
Developing your craft takes time, but if you’re unwilling to put forth the effort, your readership will suffer.
My favorite resources:
4. Avoid Passive Voice
To understand passive voice, let’s first discuss active voice.
When a writer uses active voice, the subject performs the action.
You’ll also notice the order is important:
Ted kicked the ball. [Active] Subject | Verb | Object (SVO)
John ignored the stop sign. [Active] Subject | Verb | Object (SVO)
In both examples, we’re clear about the subject. We also know that the subject is performing the action. The subject/verb/object format is logical and easy to understand. When we change the order, without placing the actor/subject first, the sentences can become passive:
The ball was kicked by Ted. [Passive]
The stop sign was ignored by John. [Passive]
In these passive voice examples, we no longer have one clear subject performing an action; we have two subjects: ball and Ted, stop sign and John. We also have the main subject (the first subject in the sentence) passively receiving the action.
The same word order can be passive without two subjects:
- The ball was kicked.
- The stop sign was ignored.
How do we identify passive voice?
We need 2 things:
- A helping verb: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been.
- A past participle/verb form (usually ending in ed, d, t, en, or n) will follow the helping verb: was kicked, were dropped, been eaten, was spent…
You can also look for an additional clues, although they’re not always present:
Look for of and by; they may indicate passive voice.
- The ball was kicked by
- The police officer was relieved of his duties.
Critics of passive voice argue that it obscures responsibility.
Politicians use it to often to avoid direct responsibility:
- Lives were lost.
- Rules were broken.
- Casualties occurred.
- Mistakes were made.
Passive voice can hide critical information. Sometimes it makes sentences difficult to read or understand. Eliminating passive voice will strengthen your writing.
One should use it sparingly and consciously, for a specific, valid reason.
In special, limited cases, passive voice can be appropriate or desirable:
- when we honestly don’t know who is performing the action,
Houses were burned.
- when we want to emphasize the receiver of the action,
The city was destroyed.
- or when we want to deemphasize the doer, as in scientific studies.
Random samples were taken.
Begin looking for it in your writing. When you reach the editing stage, search for helping verbs and past participles.
Also, if you’re staring at a difficult, clunky sentence, try lining up your subject, verb, and object for clarification (SVO).
5. Get Out of Your Reader’s Way
Whether you’re inspiring, informing, or entertaining, your reader takes center stage—not you and your work. The way or path is a journey your reader takes alone.
The journey should engage, excite, and captivate. Getting out of the way involves taming the ego.
Every time you draw attention to yourself, you interrupt the reader’s experience. The best writing invites immersion. The reader forgets he or she is reading at all, becoming a character, an observer, an integral part of the text.Every time you draw attention to yourself, you interrupt the reader’s experience. The best writing invites immersion. The reader forgets he or she is reading at all, becoming a character, an observer, an integral part of the text. Click To Tweet
How to get out of the way?
- Stop trying to impress your reader. Avoid jargon; avoid words that require a dictionary.
- Stop trying to steal the spotlight with excessive description, flowery language, or showing off your writing chops.
- Hire an editor, or participate in a peer review
- Read your work aloud and/or listen to a transcript.
In a nutshell, less you provides more room for your reader.
And stop telling them everything.
Show them first. Allow them to “see” what you’re seeing. Let them draw their own conclusions. Let them discover their own relationships with the text.
6. Know Where You’re Going, So Plan Ahead Before Writing
While I try to avoid the common plotters vs. pantsers debate, common sense favors the plotters.
Now, that’s not to say you need to plan every sentence or micromanage every creative impulse, but you need to establish a goal or intention.
Like any creative traveler, you’ll need to decide on a destination. On your way to this end point, plan for important stops along the way.
Otherwise, you can be led in multiple, incompatible directions, wasting valuable time, energy, and inspiration. There’s nothing worse than squandering inspiration.
You’ll need a basic outline, a framework to support your creative efforts. Science agrees. Studies reveal the value of constraints in increasing creativity and productivity.
If you’re writing fiction, learn and assimilate the classic narrative arc. This classic form will also assist you in other genres. From blog posts to self-help books, if you’re writing nonfiction, develop a practical, detailed outline.
Resources for Outlining:
- Storycraft by Jack Hart
- The Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson
- Story Genius by Lisa Cron
7. Hey, Writer: You Gotta’ Establish Trust with Your Readers!
I know. It sounds odd, and it’s rarely discussed.
You’re probably thinking, what does trust have to do with anything? And if you’re a fiction writer, you realize how well the best lies sell books.
Trust, however, is immensely important. It makes perfect sense.
Think about your favorite news outlets, journalists, fiction writers, memoirists, and self-help authors– the writers you consume daily. What do they have in common?
You trust them, even though you haven’t given it much thought.
You trust them to be entertaining, truthful, well informed, and/or consistent. If you consider all the media at your fingertips, your internal filter somehow deemed them worthy.
At the same time, you’ve given up on writers and media outlets that didn’t meet your expectations. You probably didn’t even see it coming. At some arbitrary point-of-no-return, you gave up.
Two strikes? Three strikes?
So, how do you establish trust with your readers?
Ever notice those 99-cent book offerings in your Twitter feed, the ones with the home-made book covers sporting too many fonts, colors, and low-res images. You know the ones. They don’t exactly inspire trust. Right?
Ever land on an overhyped blog post full of typos, grammatical errors, and eighth-grade-level punctuation mistakes? Enough said.
Be consistent, meeting and exceeding expectations.
Whatever your genre or personal brand, consistency is key.
Your audience expects certain things from you.
And while they may be forgiving once or twice, they’ll move on if you don’t deliver. Build upon prior successes by ticking all the important boxes. Afterward, offer a unique twist; show them another layer, highlighting your ability to grow, adapt, and evolve.
Guard your reputation.
For better or worse, everything you create can help or harm your personal brand.
Someone, somewhere, is holding a copy of that deleted tweet, that ill-conceived article or book you rushed into publication. Everything you release becomes part of your legacy.
There’s immense power in that “post” button.
So, think about your reputation, your personal brand.
Decide on some ground rules and boundaries before publishing. Cultivate an image that matches your best self (or your true self), the side you most want to share with your readers.
Ask yourself, “what do I want,” and “what can I live with.”
Let’s recap these important rules:
- Simplicity and clarity count.
- Show your audience some love.
- Brush up on your grammar and punctuation.
- Use active voice like a pro.
- Get out of the way.
- Work with an outline.
- Establish trust.
It’s a tall order, but I know you’re ready for it.
In the end, it all comes down to your reader.
Put your reader first, and the rest will follow.
Have a golden rule you’d like to share with us?
Share your thoughts in the comments section below.