7 “Tricks” to Improve Your Writing Overnight

I am on sabbatical for the next few weeks. While I am gone, I have asked some of my favorite bloggers to stand in for me. This is a guest post by Ray Edwards. He is a marketing strategist, copywriter, speaker, and author. You can read his blog and follow him on Twitter.

No matter how bad (or good) your writing is today, it’s possible to improve it overnight.

7 “Tricks” to Improve Your Writing Overnight

Photo Courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/MiquelMunill

Here are seven quick “tricks” that can improve the very next piece you write.

  1. Know your reader.
  2. This means more than knowing a few demographics (how old they are, their average income, etc.). To know your readers means you understand their fears, frustrations, and aspirations. Writing from the reader’s perspective will dramatically change the way you write.

  3. Know your objective.
  4. Every piece you write (blog post, press release, video script, or anything else) must have only one objective. I call this objective the Most Wanted Result, or “MWR.” Knowing your MWR forces you to write with crystal-clear focus.

  5. Use short words.
  6. To persuade, you must be easy to understand. Using short words is one of the best ways to do this. Don’t show off how many big words you know.

  7. Use short sentences.
  8. Your thoughts come across more clearly in compact sentences. An added bonus: short sentences prevent you from confusing your readers.

  9. Use short paragraphs.
  10. Imagine you come to a webpage filled with a large block of text. There are no paragraph breaks. Are you likely to read it? Most people would say no. Make your writing skimmable, scannable, and scrollable. Use short paragraphs.

  11. Use active language.
  12. Active language is vigorous and interesting. Passive language is boring. How do you know which is which? In an active sentence, the subject is doing the acting: “Bob fixes cars.” In a passive sentence, the target of the action becomes the subject of the sentence. For instance, instead of saying, “Bob fixes cars,” I might say, “The cars are fixed by Bob.”

    Passive language presents your idea poorly. It feels “backwards.” It’s also more difficult for many readers to understand. Write with power. Use active language.

  13. Write recklessly, re-write ruthlessly.
  14. When you write your first draft, it’s okay if it’s awful. In other words, right recklessly. After you have your first draft on paper (or hard drive), filled with power and energy, you can clean up any “messes” you might’ve made. Be ruthless when you re-write.

3 “Bonus Tricks”

I know I only promised seven, but here are three more “tricks” that can make a big difference in the quality of your writing. Think of them as bonuses.

  1. Have a writing routine.
  2. You already have a “recipe” for writing. You may not be conscious of it, and it may not be very good, but you do have a general procedure you follow when it’s time to write. The elements of that recipe can include where you write, what time of day, with what tools, etc.

    Why not consciously engineer your recipe, or routine, for writing? Here’s a link to a good writing routine you might use as a model.

  3. Let your writing “age.”
  4. I learned this technique from Stephen King’s book On Writing. After you’ve completed the first draft, put it away for a week or two. Let it “age.” When you come back to it with fresh eyes, potential improvements will practically leap off the page.

  5. Finish writing before getting feedback.
  6. Write the best first draft you’re capable of, let it “age” for a week or two, then revise it. Only then should you share your writing for feedback. Only get feedback from a “trusted reader.” Teach them how to give you good feedback.

    I like using the “C.U.B. Formula” (from Michael Masterson and Mike Palmer’s book, Copy Logic). Tell your trusted readers to highlight anything they find Confusing, Unbelievable, or Boring. Then weigh their feedback and decide if you need to make changes.

Use these simple techniques, and I practically guarantee your writing will improve.

Question: what are some high-leverage techniques you have used successfully to improve your writing? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • http://thewhitecollarlife.com/ Jake Bauer

    Great tips, Ray. I think the one about letting your writing age is particularly interesting. I’m usually in such a rush to get something published, I don’t take the time to let that happen. I’ll have to give it a try. Thanks.

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      I’m usually in a rush, too. I want to cross the item off my to-do list! But it does work, and the end result is so much better.

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      I confess to often being in a rush myself. This only makes it more obvious how effective this technique is.

    • http://sukofamily.org/ Caleb

      I’m usually in a hurry too, however in those circumstances when I did have the time, it made a big difference to come back later and reread.

    • brandonstarnes

      I too rush my writing.

    • Shelvia

      I like your post and it relates to what I’m

      going through.

  • http://www.davebratcher.com/ Dave Bratcher

    Excellent information Ray! I completely agree with the routine. I have not thought about it, but it exists already. Letting your writing “age”…great point and one which will be implemented immediately.

    • Jim Martin

      The idea of letting a draft “age” was very helpful to me also. This will be a much needed change in my writing routine.

      • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

        So glad you found it useful – thanks!

  • rabbimoffic

    What a fantastic list of tips. Connected with Ray’s thoughts about rewriting ruthlessly, Stephen King also said, “Write with the door closed. Rewrite with the door open.”

    • Jim Martin

      I like this quote! Thanks.

  • http://www.toodarnhappy.com/ Kim Hall

    Useful and practical tips! When I started to let my writing age as opposed to writing and immediately hitting the publish button, the quality of my posts definitely went up. I wouldn’t have believed that the “potential improvements would practically leap off the page” as you note, but that is exactly what happens.
    I am headed to read the link on a writing routine. That is definitely an area where I need improvement. Thanks!

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Great point Kim – I used to work for a news director who had a plaque on his desk that read “Great Editing Makes Great Writing”

  • Jim Martin

    Ray, this is a very helpful post! In particular, I like the idea of letting a draft age for a week or two. I also found particularly helpful the C.U.B approach. This will help me communicate more clearly to potential draft readers as to how they can be most helpful. Thanks.

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      Glad it helped!

  • http://www.eileenknowles.com Eileen

    Great advice. Glad you added have a writing routine. Getting in the habit of writing every more has been crucial for me.

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      I completely agree Eileen – it goes directly to Malcolm Gladwell’s point in the book “Outliers” that we all must work on a skill for 10,000 hours (approximately three years) before we achieve mastery of that skill – including the skill of writing!

      • http://www.eileenknowles.com Eileen

        Thanks, Tor! I had to laugh when I went back and reread my comment. Those are the kind of incoherent sentences I write before an adequate amount of coffee. Yes…I still need practice. :) Glad you understood what I was saying!

        • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

          Hah, I agree that Ray missed an opportunity for an #8th point: “Ensure adequate caffeine-to-blood ratios before writing”

          • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

            [Laughing until tears are produced…]

  • http://www.alexbarker.org/ Alex Barker

    Great wisdom here Ray. I am a “mode” writer. I write rough drafts at the same time. I edit articles at the same time. I pace pictures and links at the same time.
    I do this because each phase of writing has different tasks. Switching hats during the same period takes longer to finish a blog than finishing each article in phases of tasks (draft, edit, format, links)
    Thanks Ray

  • http://www.paulbevans.com/ Paul B Evans

    Raaaaaaay!

    Love #7

    It’s so easy to get in our heads and try to write everything perfectly the first time around.

    Fortunately, I know I’m horrendous so there are no unrealistic expectations. A few years ago I decide to get one of my self published books professionally edited. It came back with a warning.

    I said, “You’re used to working with people who think they wrote it perfect the first time. That’s not me. I expect more red than black!”

    It did not disappoint!

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Red is our friend. ;)

      • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

        Paul, this literally made me laugh out loud. No, really. :-)

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      now THAT is comedy!

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      Now THAT made me laugh!

  • timothymoser

    I find it amusing that in the paragraph on not worrying about typos in first drafts, you say “right recklessly”. But maybe that wasn’t intentional. I agree with the point, though: Draft first, polish later.

    • http://www.professionalcontentcreation.com/ Rebecca Livermore

      Hi Timothy,

      I’m Michael’s content manager, and I reviewed this post prior to the publication. I saw this as a clever way of making the point, and decided to leave it in there. Good job on noticing!

      • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

        Ha. Nice, Rebecca!

        • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

          I intentionally place typos in each piece I write, to satisfy those who delight in finding them. ;-)

  • Bria Pittman

    Great tips. I especially love the one about letting your writing age. I have found it really does make a difference if you put it away for a little while and come back to it with fresh eyes later. Thanks for the tips!

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Exactly Bria – while the actual words don’t change our perception and processing of those words does allowing us to tighten it up!

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      Thank you Bria.

  • http://sparkvoice.wordpress.com/ DS

    Use short words. Great tip.

    Don’t overwhelm your reader, don’t try to intimidate them with your word use. Use clear, concise words that are easy to understand.

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Great comment DS. Every journalism professor and news director I every worked with stressed the need to avoid using “…$5 SAT words…” in our news copy.

      Ironically the worst offenders of obfuscated (i.e. cloudy) speech were law enforcement agencies.

      I try not to speak in sweeping generalization, but every single police press release and news conference I every attended included the following phrase: “…the perpetrator in question was apprehended and taken into custody….” which translates to “…the suspect was arrested…”

      • http://sparkvoice.wordpress.com/ DS

        I appreciate (thank) you for bringing your journalism background to the table.

        • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

          I have simply found shorter words in shorter sentences seem to do a better job most of the time.

  • Micah Pattisall

    Some of these tips are perfect, but my only pushback is against writing with short words, short sentences, easy to read “skimmable” paragraphs. Obviously a lot of factors affect one’s writing style, and I know there’s a time and place. Still it seems that “easy|short|skimmable” is the gateway to bland, monochronistic and commoditized. Simple and clear expression is not mutually exclusive from complex words, sentences and paragraphs.

    It’s the difference between Pee Wee and Pro Football. The point of the game is exactly the same at both levels. Yet as the pros execute the staggering complexities of their playbooks, football becomes equally transcendent and simple. People don’t pack stadiums to watch Pee Wee’s.

    Hope that doesn’t seem harsh. Not meant to be.

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Micah, I understand your point but I think the analogy that compares NFL play with high prose is flawed.

      I’m a big fan of the NFL (the Steelers in particular) and while the play of the offensive, defensive and special teams are definitely better executed at the collegiate and professional level – virtually anyone can still understand the game they’re watching.

      That’s simply not the case with the written word.

      Regrettably, many studies show that the average U.S. reading comprehension is not at the 8th grade level – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18811992

      So the vast majority of Americans simply can’t understand the writing complexity you’re purporting.

      The ultimate question writers must ask themselves – “Do I want to convey clarity or confusion in my writing?”

      In my humble opinion….clarity is king.

      • Micah Pattisall

        Tor,
        I agree with clarity, and that is why I put the caveat that it depends upon the situation. Certainly in many situations short and quick works, and is functional, not just pragmatic.

        This forum is not sufficient to fully develop this, but I think I was reacting to a generalization that all writing should be x, y, z. I guess I’m proposing that a communicative race to the bottom is not the goal of our writing. Maybe I’m the only nerd who still likes to read with a dictionary app handy. :-)

        Jim Gaffigan has a great riff on our devolving communication in relation to ordering at McDonald’s. It’s been simplified to numbers, and in the future, may just be grunts. :-)

        I still think the NFL illustration works. Might have to write a blog to develop it.

        • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

          Micah, I fully agree with you that formulaic writing is barely a step above “Mad Libs” and that Jim Gaffigan is one of the funniest people on the planet.

          I’d love to read a post that fleshes out your ideas further!

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      It doesn’t seem harsh, Micah. But I stand by my recommendation. I didn’t come up with it-it was originally the advice of Ernest Hemingway. Definitely not peewee material.

      • Micah Pattisall

        Thanks for replying Ray. I’m definitely going to have develop the illustration a little further. I’m not calling what you recommended Pee Wee. It’s that pros take the complex and make it enjoyable for all audiences.

        Anyway, I know your blog was not meant to be a doctoral thesis on all elements of writing. Thanks for the exchange.

  • Dave Hanna

    Brings to mind the timeless principles of “Elements of Style” (Strunk and White), required reading for sophomore English class 40 years ago!

  • kentsanders

    Ray, thanks so much. This was a great article.

  • http://jeremymccommons.com/ Jeremy McCommons

    Thanks for the great tricks! While I’m passionate about sharing my thoughts and ideas, I don’t consider myself a great writer so these tips are very helpful to me.

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Jeremy, it’s sounds like you’re a committed life-long learner – I believe that the best writers are those who are constantly willing to learn and take constructive feedback!

      • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

        Amen to that!

  • http://www.danerickson.net/ Dan Erickson

    Great tips. I’m a big fan of minimalism in writing. Say it quickly and concisely, but not so sparse that it’s not engaging. My favorite tip here is number 7, write recklessly, rewrite ruthlessly. I’ve learned to be reckless. It’s key to getting writing done. Just do it without a care. I’m fair at rewriting ruthlessly, but am always improving. http://www.danerickson.net is a site about writing and writing as a form of therapy.

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Dan, I wholeheartedly agree with you. The ultimate purpose of writing is to convey understanding, ideas and insight – not to set lexical boobie traps in the readers’ path.

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      Dan, I love this part: “Say it quickly and concisely, but not so sparse that it’s not engaging.”

      • http://www.danerickson.net/ Dan Erickson

        Thanks, Ray. It’s a fine balance at times.

  • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

    This is gold! Great post, Ray. “Write recklessly, re-write ruthlessly” and “Let your writing age” are the two tricks that have helped my writing the most. Just last night, I returned to an article I drafted earlier in the week. After a couple days away, I was able to edit quickly. As you said, the needed improvements jumped off the page.

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      Thank you Michele. Coming from you, that is a wonderful compliment.

  • http://www.bookleverageblog.com/ George Rodriguez

    Ray,
    I like the tip about letting it age. I do this already, but I call it “marinate”. Nice to have that reinforcement from your post.

    Also, I think this may fall under having an objective, but I go into writing a post knowing whether it is going to be a current-events type post or “evergreen” content. That guides the writing process as well.

    Thanks for the great tips.

    • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

      Well said George, the “nature” of the story is an important factor to consider while writing.

      I agree that current-events-based pieces tend to be punchier and more declarative; while an opinion-leaning-evergreen article can meander a bit with more flowery speech. Great comment!

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      That’s a really good distinction, George. Thanks!

  • http://www.thedailyretort.com/ TorConstantino

    These are excellent ideas Ray! I think the single most important point is your first one about “knowing the audience” – that single factors drives so much regarding tonality, format, distribution and engagement. Awesome insights!

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      Thank you so much Tor. I agree-knowing your audience is the key factor.

  • Josh Glaser

    This is going in my Evernote file on writing. Thanks, Ray!

    I am usually unflinching on keeping my blog posts to under 400 words, which can be incredibly difficult because I am not naturally a succinct communicator. Letting my first draft age makes me a more objective reader–more able to discern the meat from the fat.

    One tip I’d add for others who frequently find themselves over their word limit and needing to cut: When I’ve cut all the fat out and I’m faced with the task of cutting good content, I don’t use the delete key. I cut it and paste it into another file to use in a later post.

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      That’s a great tip Josh. Thanks for sharing.

  • Kathleen Thompson

    This post is definitely a keeper, Ray. Knowing my audience and letting it age are two hints I believe will help me the most right now. I anticipate seeing improvement in my next writing.

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      Glad you found it useful, Kathleen.

  • http://JonDHarrison.com/ Jon D Harrison

    Powerful and to the point.

  • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

    Love that King tip. Such a great book.

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      We are definitely agreed on that, Jeff.

  • Alexandra Skey

    Love the 2nd bonus one!

    I thought I wrote a stellar intro for a chapter I was working on last week, re-read it today and realize it’s completely out of sync with the rest of the chapter.

    Aging. Love it.

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      It’s always interesting to see the different perspective we have when we come back to it.

  • http://juliesunne.com/ Julie Sunne

    So helpful! My two main takeaways are writing the first draft recklessly (as a professional editor, that is so difficult) and letting the piece age.

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      Thanks Julie, I’m glad that helped.

  • http://sukofamily.org/ Caleb

    Letting the writing “age” has been very helpful for me. The problem is that often I’m not patient enough to wait for the aging process.

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      I admit that patience is a virtue I am still developing.

  • http://leadbychoice.wordpress.com/ Kimunya Mugo

    By far some of the most useful advise I have read. Practical and easy to follow. I am guilty of not having a writing routine or waiting for my content to age. Thanks Ray :)

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      Glad it was useful.

  • http://www.tanyamarlow.com/ Tanya Marlow

    This was an excellent post, thank you. I particular connected with the ‘letting your work age’ point. I am often surprised by how fruitful it is to let something sit for 2 weeks.

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      I have the same experience of surprise, Tanya.

  • Kachimkwu Maduemezia

    Great tips and tricks! Love the one on using active language. That kind of language really gets the interest of the readers heightened. But, writing ruthlessly? How’s that? I don’t quite get it.

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      Think of it this way: write first with no limitations on what you say (write recklessly). Then go back and edit your writing later with precision and a critical eye (re-write ruthlessly).

  • http://toninelsonmeansbusiness.com/ Toni Nelson

    Very valuable points. My favorite tip is number 5. In today’s fast paced world I believe in giving my readers quality content that is short, precise and can be scanned.

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      As you just proved. :-)

  • http://www.livebeyondawesome.com/ Jen McDonough “The Iron Jen”

    Ray, GREAT tipss!! I find just blogging helps me become a better writer. I am not a “writer” at heart, but it is a way to communicate my message. I find that you don’t have to be “perfect” to be engaging.
    Thanks for these wonderful tips Ray. I especially like the “aging” advice.
    Live Beyond Awesome.
    Jen

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      Thank you very much Jen. I will have to respectfully disagree with you though, and say that you are indeed a writer. :-)

      • http://www.livebeyondawesome.com/ Jen McDonough “The Iron Jen”

        ahhhh…thanks Ray! Perhaps a “rebel writer” is more like it.
        MANY THANKS!!!
        Jen

  • Jaunty

    Also, proof your writing with more than one set of eyes! Tip #7 tells us to “right” instead of write! :)

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      Jaunty – point taken. Thanks.

  • http://www.findingyourvoiceradio.com/ Joel Boggess

    Insightful tips Mike. Thank you for sharing.

    The one that rings the bell for me is to write reckless. When I’m stuck and need a quick crash-course in creativity, I pull out a tablet (a real tablet),
    and check-in with what I’m thinking about.

  • http://www.findingyourvoiceradio.com/ Joel Boggess

    Insightful tips Mike. Thank you for sharing.

    The one that rings the bell for me is to write reckless. When I’m stuck and need a quick crash-course in creativity, I pull out a tablet (a real tablet)
    and check-in with what I’m thinking about.

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      Joel, that’s a great tip. Sometimes there’s nothing quite like pen and paper.

  • http://www.integrityvasolutions.com/ Katie Simmons

    As a beginner blogger these are great tips! I especially like #6. I
    use passive language too much, so that’s something I need to change.

    • http://rayedwards.com/about/ Ray Edwards

      I’m glad you found it helpful, Katie.

  • http://wwww.minecraftchannel.net/ Minecraft

    These results are very good idea, I will try to apply this procedure. And hopefully that will be effective.

  • Debbie

    Great post. thanks

  • brandonstarnes

    Awesome info. I love the tip as well on letting your writing age. I have seen this to be true when scheduling some of my blog post. I catch myself coming back to the articles right before they go live. Hoping to put these tips into practice to become a better writer.

  • Tony

    Brilliant article, very helpful indeed.

  • http://www.larkins.org/ Larkins Dsouza

    Your advice on knowing your reader is a bit new to me, I mean I always knew who read my blogs but I never took in consideration any other aspects you mentioned.

  • http://receivetipstricks.com/ mrinal

    You can also use online editor like polishmywriting for editing small grammar and spelling mistakes.

  • Paresh

    Thank you Michael for these detailed seven guidelines. I was feeling like getting a writer’s block when I found this article. I am sure my next articles will be better. I have just started writing blogs for my website http://www.cpag.in

  • Jason

    Thanks for the tips.

  • Manish Chaudhary

    very helpful tips for writing…..

    HAS exam writing tips

  • http://www.basicblogtalk.com kimseasok

    Wow..! You did the great here..! Actually, the article is so useful to me. I am not an native writer thus English writing technique is really a big issued to me. It is hard to learn and improve English but you make know about how to write with my current situation. Thanks a lot about your tips, I really love this