If there’s one big fear that haunts freelance writers the most, it’s that their writing is ‘not good enough.’ This fear drives writers to purchase many courses on writing craft. Yet the worry never seems to go away.
Do you wonder if your writing is making the grade?
As a college dropout who got into freelance writing sort of by accident, I used to be haunted by this fear. But here’s the good news: You can learn on the job and keep improving your writing.
That’s exactly how I went from clueless songwriter to writing for Forbes, and winning national journalism awards. One piece at a time, one question at a time to my editors.
For a long time, I was of the opinion that writing craft can’t be taught — you either have a gut instinct for a turn of phrase, for the flow of a good sentence, or you don’t.
But over the years, I’ve changed my mind. There are definitely some fundamental things to know that can drastically improve your writing and help you get more freelance writing jobs.
What are these writing-craft basics? Here are my top 10 tips (and extra credit to those of you who can spot the Hamilton-related subheds):
1. Proof these 2 things
It’s weird, but I can’t tell you how many proposed blog headlines or email subject lines I’ve received with pitches for guest posting on my blog that have an obvious grammar or spelling error in them. I think we write those real quick, because we’ve been thinking on them a long time, and then don’t revisit them.
They’re worth a check-back! Otherwise, you get things like this email subject:
Interest to gust post
When I point out that someone has pitched me with an error in subject line or headline, young writers often tell me, “Hey, I was texting on my phone when I sent that, so you should excuse the error. I’ll write better for you when I get the assignment.”
Sorry, that doesn’t work. Care enough about your pitch to proof it, no matter what device you send it from. If texting is hard for you, wait until you’re at the computer to send important messages.
2. Do some ‘splaining
All good short pieces of writing have a paragraph or two near the top that explains what we’ll learn if we read through the piece. Editors call this the ‘nut’ graf.
Many pieces of writing you can find online lack a nut graf. They just begin to ramble along, with no focused point in sight, and readers wonder what’s in it for for them. Then, readers give up.
Read any newspaper or magazine feature, and you’ll find yourself arriving at a nut. Maybe it starts with an example or a situation, and then you soon get a paragraph that says, ‘This is only one example of the growing trend of X.” That’s the nut.
Review your writing piece and make sure you are flashing the point of it up high in a focused paragraph or two, so readers know what your piece will deliver.
Writers are sometimes afraid they’re ‘giving too much away too early’ by doing this — but trust me, this little tweak is the one that gets you read.
3. Break it up
Are your sentences winding along for five lines or more? Unless you’re writing for an academic journal, you’re going to want to cut that out.
Especially if you’re writing online, short sentences win. Especially if you’re writing sales copy… short sentences win big.
If you’ve got a stem-winder sentence, break it into two or three short sentences. Voila! Better comprehension and more reader retention. I’ve been reviewing a lot of LinkedIn About sections for my LinkedIn Marketing course students, and this is my top critique of their copy.
Long, windy sentences that are arduous to get through. Written like an academic thesis, instead of like a conversation with a person in a cafe, like good online business writing. Understand that many readers will give up and leave, if you make them go three lines or more to get to the end of sentences — and that’s not what you want.
By the same token, short paragraphs also win online. Break those up, too.
4. Please pause
I’m seeing more and more writers who deliver copy in a breathless style devoid of commas, even in those long sentences I was just talking about. That makes it hard to parse what you’re saying.
Learn the comma rules, decide if you’re an Oxford comma person or not, and then consistently use commas to help us through your prose.
5. The dullness of being
Passive ‘being’ verbs are the enemy of interesting prose. Seek and kill yours.
Even worse are long windups into passive verbs or using multiple passive verbs in a sentence, as in, “If you’re thinking about going to the store, get some eggs.”
Solution: “If you go to the store, get some eggs.”
It’s worth a quick run back through your piece to hunt and kill those past-tense verbs, whenever possible. Even if you really are talking about the past, you can use simpler past-tense verbs, like:
“He thought about going to the store, but decided not to.”
See? Still feels more ‘active’ and like it’s happening now, compared with those deadly ‘ing’ verbs.
6. Evaluate adjectives
Another common writing-craft problem I see is adjective choices that aren’t ideal. The one you’ve chosen isn’t precise. It isn’t the best descriptor, just sort of vaguely in the ballpark.
Cindy walked slowly down the street.
Cindy meandered idly down the street.
One paints a bit more of a picture, yes?
Always look back over your writing at your word choices. Do they have the tone this piece requires? Do they precisely describe the situation? Do they help the reader imagine the situation? If there’s a better word, use it instead.
Or even better, maybe the adjective isn’t needed at all. In which case…
7. Write less, win more
We all write rambling first drafts. Don’t forget to come back and boil it down, to make it as concise as possible. Long, rambling blog posts that don’t seem to have had an edit are the hallmark of an amateur.
For instance, take a look at this paragraph in a pitch I reviewed recently:
In addition to my ability to reach out nationally and internationally to alumni, my residence in Florida would allow me to personally meet with your alumni and donors who have made Florida their home. Sometimes it is easier to have someone meet with them personally to sit down and chat about their memories and life stories than to try to do that at a distance. I’m available to make that possible for your needs in getting interviews with Florida residents.
The same information can be conveyed this way:
I’m a Florida resident, so I’d be able to meet in person with local alumni or donors who are the subject of profiles, to capture those little personal details that makes stories more interesting.
See how much less of a slog that is? I call this the trash-compactor process. Take your draft, and then see how much you can compress it down. Then, you have room for additional useful info. Do this to all your writing.
Editors aren’t looking for the first 1,000 words you can think of — they want your best, most informative, concisely written 1,000 words.
This whittling down of our writing extends down to the single-word level. Writers will often have their own set of commonly overused extra words.
Cut ‘that’ out, is one of my watchwords.
Figure out what your extra words are — very? really? just? — and then eliminate them from your copy.
8. When lists go wrong
I’ve discovered many writers love bulleted or numbered article ideas, but they don’t know how to format this sort of post. They leave out the critical setup and conclusion that make list posts work. Here’s the required format:
Setup graf (editor-ese for ‘paragraph’): “Y is a major problem. Here are three reasons you should do X to fix it:”
Wouldn’t it have been weird if I’d gone straight out of this outline into the next subhead in my post? You need a little something to wrap it up, right? It’s the same with your list.
If you want to give us a list of items, you need to set the stage for us, so we know what’s going on. Then, give us a concluding thought that ties those ideas together. Don’t just throw a list or set of bullets out there that abruptly end, and we’re left wondering what to think, or what next step we should take.
9. Have you dropped a stitch?
Here’s a little writing-craft tip that’s become an obsession of mine over the years: Read the last sentence of each paragraph along with the first sentence of the next one.
Do they make sense together? Does one logically lead into the other?
If it’s an abrupt shift, know that you will lose readers, at that point. Some go, ‘Huh?’ and move on.
A piece of good writing is knit together like a sweater. There’s no dropped stitches or abrupt changes in the narrative, where a reader feels confused and gives up.
10. One last time…
Every day, I get blog-post pitches that clearly weren’t given a final read-over before sending. There are sentences that end midway through, obvious misspellings… it’s clear there wasn’t a final read.
No matter how precise you think you are with your writing (I personally definitely never make typos, I swear <cough>), try to write ahead.
Then, you can sleep on it and read it again the next day. Try reading it a sentence at a time from the end to the beginning, to catch more issues.
Keep improving your writing craft
If you recognize yourself in some of these common writing errors, don’t feel bad. Keep studying the types of publications or websites you’d like to write for. Try to soak up their writing-craft conventions.
Look at how they start and end pieces, how they cite research and interview sources. You can reverse-engineer better writing for a prospective client with a little bit of sleuthing.
What’s helped you write better? Let’s discuss in the comments.