33 Tips on How to Write Like a Pro
Here’s the best writing secret I can share with you about how to write well: Forget about doing a good job. Really. That puts too much pressure on you as you launch into your first draft. Just write and write and get that tangle of thoughts in your head down on the page. I coined a phrase for this: Good writing is really good editing. Or to put it more bluntly: Bad writers just stopped too soon.
You’ll begin to write well after you’ve written your first draft. This is exactly how those writers you love to read, the ones with bestseller before their names, do it. You can too. Let the words and ideas flow freely as you craft your rough first draft. Once that’s finished, you’re ready for these 33 tips on how to write well.
Getting Started 1. Headline. Does it grab attention? Have you included keywords? What a waste if you write a bang-up letter, for example, and no one opens it! And the art of headline writing is even more useful than you might think. What is a tweet if not a 140-character headline? E-mail subject lines? Headlines in a box. Titles, subtitles, and subheads are headlines by a different name. (My free Inspired Writing Toolkit is packed with tips and tools like this.)M
2. Lead paragraphs: Ditto. Does it hook your readers and include a keyword or two? Good! That’s how you write well—and keep your readers reading. Try the next five tips to start right and write well:
3. Set the scene: Take your readers there; transport them to a situation in their lives that relates to your message. They’ll be right there with you, which increases their buy-in to your message.
4. Share solutions: Solve a problem, offer advantages, or explain how you’ve made a difference.
5. Offer benefits: Features tell only what you do or how you do it. Benefits offer possibility and results—change the world, improve education, increase good health. (We can explore this important idea more deeply—and other writing tips to improve your results—in our free coaching session.)
6. Foreshadow: Set the stage for something that will happen later in your document. You can also hint at conclusions—but make the reader keep reading to discover the resolution.
7. Answer why: According to Robert Cialdini, lead author of the bestselling book Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, people want to understand why, even when the reasons may seem clear to you. “… be sure to state the reasoning behind your request,” he writes. “That may sound obvious, but too often we mistakenly assume that other people understand the reasons ….”
Keep ’em Reading
8. Middle: Have you kept the muddle out of the middle by using bullets, numbers, and white space to organize your content in an eye-appealing way? (Sometimes the best tips about how to write well don’t involve your words—but how you present them. Learn more about this with my “Articles & Blogs” webinar + book $12.99 special offer.)
9. Sentence length: Write sentences with a variety of lengths. Why? When people read long sentences, their minds rebel and begin to drift off. Add some punch. Short sentences work!
10. Paragraphs: Does each one focus on just one topic? The Rule of One is key to mastering how to write well: By having only one main topic per paragraph, you avoid reader mystification.
11. Your purpose: Is it clear? This relates to answering “why” and keeping your readers clued in.
12. Focus: Is it on the readers’ needs? Don’t just dump data on them—they’ll hit the delete key. The best tip for how to write well is to answer WIIFM? (What’s in it for me?) That’s what every reader is asking.
13. Style: Does it speak to your audience? If you’re writing to professors, your tone will be different from writing to colleagues. Match your style to your readers.
14. Tone: Is it conversational and engaging? That’s so important as you explore how to write well.
15. Keywords: Have you used as many as possible—without stuffing? A blog like this needs 1% to 1.5% keywords.M
End with Impact
16. Ending: Is it memorable? Does the reader know what to do next? Whether you’re writing an e-mail or blog, letter or proposal, you want to close in a way that encourages your readers to remember your message and …
17. … Take action. Sometimes that’s as simple as asking them to RSVP or send you information. Other times, you may be asking them for money. Whatever, tell them what you want, when you need it, and make it easy for them to comply.
18. Did you answer: Who, what, where, why, when, how? Journalists call these the Six Wise Men because they know how important they are to writing well. Use them like a checklist to ensure you’ve covered all your points.
19. Jargon: Have you taken it out? No one wants to read insider lingo; it just causes reader mystification, which overworks the delete key!
Good Writing is Really Good Editing
20. Conversational: That’s how to write well in the 21st century. We’re much more casual today, though keep in mind this refers to a professional conversation. If you want people to read your documents (i.e., finish them, so you get the results you need), talk to them, not at them. Conversational writing doesn’t mean you lapse into salty slang, just that you write in a relaxed style that draws your readers in. The results are often clearer and more concise too. (Want to know more about editing? My special offer of my editing webinar + one book of your choice for only $12.99 is hard to beat!)
21. Clear: Review your writing from the readers’ perspective and turn on your mumbo-jumbo detector. For instance, watch out for long introductory phrases that just confuse your readers (who don’t know where you’re headed).
22. Concise: Did you cut out extra words? Writing well means saying less, though it takes time to fine-tune. “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” —Blaise Pascal
23. Creative: Enlivened your writing with techniques for writing well. Stretch a little as you explore how to add the following five creative tips:
24. Vivid Verbs: Sometimes the most elegant construction uses “to-be” verbs, e.g., is, are, were. But whenever you can, use vivid verbs such as inveigle, foster, recall, delineated, exercise, specify. Come up with your own list of favorites.
25. Senses. Fiction writers draw us into their stories by awakening our senses. You can too. If you’re writing a report about a problem, for example, grab attention by showing how people typically react to the situation. Are their hands shaking as they try a complicated device? Is the room filled with an unmistakable sense of dread? And if you’re writing a book, you want the readers to keep turning the pages, and engaging sensory information works wonders.
26. Dialogue: Break up your content with other voices. This also adds white space and makes the page “breathe.”
27. Stories set you apart. Stories allow readers to step into the picture. And stories trigger emotions, which is where we buy and buy in. Our brains are wired for stories. (My storytelling webinar + Storytelling Toolkit [only $12.99 for both!] are packed with tips on this important topic.)
28. Similes: Similes help your readers quickly grasp whatever you’re writing about by comparing your topic to something that’s already familiar. To come up with similes, start by asking yourself what characteristic or benefit you want to convey—economical, easy to use, fast, and so on. Once you’ve determined that, ask yourself what everyday ideas or situations share those qualities, e.g., our software is like a personal trainer …
29. Constructive: To write well, you need to offer encouragement and avoid unnecessarily harsh words. If you need to deliver “bad news,” try the Bad News Burrito. Write something positive, deliver the news, then roll it up with something positive. It’s Psychology 101, and you’ll keep people reading and/or on your team.
30. Complete: Sounds obvious, but this step is too often overlooked. Use the Six Wise Men to make sure you don’t leave something out (and have to write that embarrassing oops e-mail to clarify).
Polish & Proof
31. Flow: Is the cadence smooth? The best was to determine this is to read your writing aloud. Where you stumble, your readers will stumble too.
32. Did you listen to your gut? In the classic film noir “Double Indemnity,” Edward G. Robinson plays an insurance investigator who foils Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyk’s scheme. How? He listens to his intuition. “Every month, hundreds of claims come to this desk,” Robinson says with rapid-fire delivery. “Some of them are phonies. And I know which ones. How do I know? Because my little man tells me … The little man in here” (patting his gut). You have a little man/woman too, and it’s your best friend when editing. Pay attention to those uneasy feelings because they’re alerting you to areas where you can improve.
33. Proofing: Isn’t it amazing how typos jump off the page immediately after you hit “send”? You can edit and edit, but because your brain already knows what you mean to say, it skips over mistakes. Especially for important documents, you need someone else to read your work, at least twice. A proof buddy at work can help you find those goofs and gaffes. Work alone? Virtual editing friends work just as well.
Next time you find yourself procrastinating over a writing project, just start writing. Don’t worry about the quality—yet. You can’t. Relax knowing that your gut and brain editors will help you add polish and pizzazz during the editing process. Like Robinson shares in “Double Indemnity”: “I’ve been living with this little man for 26 years; he’s never failed me yet.”
Yours won’t either. And in the process, you’ll discover exactly how to write well.
WANT MORE TIPS & TOOLS? I’m offering three free books (including 5 handy checklists) to inspire you and your writing. You’ll dispel 10 writing myths that may be holding you back and learn more about writing good stories, articles, and blogs. Just click here to find out more.