Writing is something we all do at some point - and most of us could stand to do it better! Let's consider how and why we might improve our writing skills.
When you really think about it, language is a miraculous invention. It allows us to take the content of our own minds, package it up in a series of sounds, gestures, or symbols, and transfer it into someone else’s.
Written language is a particular game-changer. It allows for the expression and dissemination of fabulously complicated ideas. But you can only do this effectively if you’ve got the right skills.
What are writing skills?
Writing skill allows you to convey your message effectively through text. This means spelling and punctuating properly, as well as knowing what words to use and the order in which to use them.
You’ll also need to know how to structure paragraphs and even larger blocks of text so that your message will be understood by the reader. This might be just one reader or millions of them.
What is grammar?
The term ‘grammar’ refers to a system that governs how words and sentences are put together. You might think of grammar as a series of rules, but these rules are really just a reflection of your reader’s expectations.
Without grammar, your reader would be unable to extract meaning from the words you write. Or they might extract the wrong meaning! You can find out more about grammar in our open step, Why should we care about grammar? by UCL.
What is syntax?
Syntax is a subset of grammar that deals with the order of words and phrases. In many cases, re-ordering can have a profound impact. We might understand that the sentence, ‘the man ate the chicken’ is very different to ‘the chicken ate the man’ — but the difference lies entirely in the word order: syntax.
Importance of writing skills
Unless you’re entering a profession where all of your communication is verbal, then you’ll need writing skills. Let’s take a look at why.
How good writing skills can help you find a better job
It’s easy to see how being able to express yourself clearly might be desirable in a whole range of occupations. A 2016 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in the US revealed that around three-quarters of employers value strong written communication skills in a candidate. For certain professions, the true figure is likely to be much higher.
If your writing is easy to read and understand, employers will be drawn to you. If it is opaque and confusing, then the same employers will be repelled. This is understandable. If you can’t express yourself clearly in a job application, then you’re unlikely to be able to do so when you’re actually in the role.
Good writing skills in business
Being able to write well will allow you to share your ideas more effectively with colleagues and clients. It’ll help to clear up potential miscommunications, ease tensions, and to persuade others.
In business, good writing usually shares a few characteristics.
- It should be free of errors. This means having a firm grasp of grammar and spelling.
- It should be confident and direct. Know what you’re going to say and say it.
- The tone should be well-judged. Some business environments will be more permissive when it comes to slang, others will be more rigid. Again, knowing your audience is critical.
Different types of writing and what they’re for
In truth, there are as many types of writing as there are potential audiences, purposes and messages. It’s useful to lump them into a few broad categories.
1. Creative writing
The written word is commonly used to tell stories. For many aspiring writers, this is the ultimate form of writing. But doing it right requires a certain level of skill and dedication to the craft.
If you’d like to make your first forays into fiction, then there are few better places to begin than our Start Writing Fiction course by The Open University. On the course, you’ll learn not only the nuts and bolts of putting sentences together, but how to craft memorable characters and construct a plot that will keep readers gripped.
Our blog post on How to write a novel puts the emphasis on long-form writing – so head there for some specific tips. Composing a novel can feel like a never-ending task — but with the proper guidance, you’ll achieve the results you’re after!
If you’re going to be writing feature articles for websites and magazines, then you’ll need to hone skills that aren’t directly related to writing, including interviewing skills, and how to contend with ethical dilemmas. Our Feature Writing course from the University of Kent will help point you in the right direction.
Writing a script is distinct from other forms of creative writing, in that it pares everything down to simple stage directions and dialogue. To stand out, you’ll need a specialised skill set. Those interested in writing for film and television might consider An Introduction to Screenwriting. This course, from the University of East Anglia’s School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing, will help you get that screenplay crafted, polished and ultimately sold.
Certain kinds of creative writing present particular challenges. If you’re writing for music, for example, then you’ll not only need to consider the words being sung but the musical arrangement around them. This applies whether you’re writing for a single person with an acoustic guitar, or an entire West End production.
Our course on How to Write Your First Song will provide you with the tools you need to get started. It covers everything from melody to arrangement to scansion (the metrical patterns of a poem or song).
If you’d prefer to forgo the musical element and focus on poetry, then you might instead consider our course on poetry: Playing with Poetry: Creative Writing and Poetics.
2. Academic writing
This requires a slightly different approach to the kinds of writing we’ve talked about thus far. Most of the time, the aim is to get the ideas that reside in your head into the head of the reader, while minimising the potential for misunderstanding. Despite its reputation, academic writing should avoid unnecessarily long sentences or overwrought vocabulary.
If you’d like to develop the skills necessary to write this kind of content, then check out our advice on academic writing. You might also look into our Beginner and Intermediate guides to writing in English for University Study.
If English isn’t your native language, then you might face particular challenges in crafting your academic writing. Academic Writing in English for ESL Learners is a course that will help to give ESL students the leg-up they need to succeed in English-speaking universities.
An essay is a piece of writing on a subject, written as the author pleases. In many cases, an essay will advance a particular viewpoint, or lay out an argument.
Doing this means taking into account the likely prejudices of your reader and anticipating them. It might mean presenting your ideas in a logical sequence so that they can be easily assimilated. Or you might deliberately present them out of sequence to shock the reader into continuing reading.
3. Business writing
When you’re writing for business reasons, your writing will be informed by an entirely different set of concerns. You’ll still be looking to express your ideas, but you’ll be doing it in an altogether different way.
A report is a document that you’ll be passing on to your colleagues and collaborators. It’ll contain an analysis of a given subject, typically one that you’ve been asked to research.
A good report will be easy to read and straightforward. The structure of a report tends to be tighter than an essay, since the purpose of a report is more narrowly defined.
Writing a report well is something that’s vitally important for many professionals. Your ability to communicate your analysis of a given problem or situation might have incredibly broad ramifications for your career in general.
Much of the time, the emails we write constitute the largest chunk of our writing for a given day. Crafting an email is an art form that’s worth perfecting. We often write emails under time constraints. Therefore, having an instinctive command of the language is extremely useful. You want to be thinking about the ideas you want to convey, not wrestling with how best to express them. Our course on Writing Better Emails will help to point you in the right direction.
Again, your audience should be considered. If you’re firing off a quick email to a colleague, then a little bit of informality is expected — and it might even be desirable. If you’re addressing a stranger and you wish to project an air of professionalism, then going for a formal tone might be preferable.
This style of writing involves persuading people. It’s synonymous with marketing and usually ends with a call to action (typically a suggestion that the reader buys something). It’s a close cousin of ‘content writing’, which involves conveying information to the reader rather than trying to persuade them.
Making content more readable and relatable takes practice, but it’s essential if you’re going to draw readers in and keep them. Those looking for an introduction can take a look at our blog post on how to become a content writer.
5. Technical writing
Written with a knowledgeable audience in mind, you’re free to use terms that a general audience might not understand in technical writing. In many cases, using these terms allows for highly complex ideas to be handled much more quickly.
If you’re trying to explain how a lithium-ion battery works, for example, some level of jargon is to be expected. You’re talking about complex subjects using technical language, but this doesn’t mean that your writing can’t be clear and concise.
For engineers who’d like to express their ideas more effectively, our course on Technical Report Writing might be worth investigating. It covers everything from the anatomy of a great report to how to write a good abstract.
How to improve your writing skills and grammar
The English language has been pieced together by millions of separate authors over thousands of years. The grammar is a little convoluted, and can even trip up people who have been writing and speaking fluently for decades. Getting to grips with it requires regular practice and just a little bit of study.
Writing skills courses
Guided learning can help you to progress quickly, and to transform your writing in ways that might not be possible through independent study and practice alone.
Our Writing and Editing courses by the University of Michigan cover the most essential and important bases. From Word Choice and Word Order, to Revising, Drafting, and Structure and Organisation, there’s a course for everything.
In some cases, it might be a very particular piece of writing that’s hugely consequential. Our course in How to Succeed at: Writing Applications, for example, will give the applications you write the best possible chance of having the impact you’re looking for.
Exercises to improve writing skills
If you’re looking to improve your writing, one approach might be to simply do more of it. Aspiring novelists should simply try to write a novel, leaping (or perhaps stumbling) over the many hurdles that the process presents. The problem with this approach is that you risk spending many hours doing the things that you’re already quite good at – without learning new skills.
This is where writing exercises come in. They’re a little bit like playing scales on the piano. In this article, British Council tutor Rob lists a few of these exercises. It’s a good idea to pick out the sort of niche you’d like to focus on. As well as traditional writing exercises, modern writers have access to an array of digital tools which can ease the process.
It’s fair to say that the modern internet is saturated with writing tips. Cut out all the adverbs, you might hear someone say. Similarly: active voice is better than passive voice, short sentences are better than long ones, and qualifiers are the work of the devil.
Much like the Pirate Code from the Pirates of the Caribbean, these are not so much rules as loose guidelines. When George Orwell wrote his famous essay on politics in the English language, he included a few rules of his own, including prohibitions against ‘dying metaphors’, wordiness and the aforementioned passive voice.
But even he instructed his readers to ‘break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.’ Which is a way of telling the writer to exercise their judgement. If a passage sounds okay when you read it aloud, then it’s probably not all that bad — no matter how many adverbs are thrown in there.
Crafting effective writing requires regular, deliberate practice. This means not just putting fingers to the keyboard every day, but analysing what you’ve written, and thinking about how it might be improved. The best writers tend also to be avid readers — which is why it’s a good idea to find an author whose style you’d like to emulate and make a point of reading them closely.