Weekly roundup: 4 practical exercises to improve your writing

You don’t have to be a writer to spend your days with words. most of us spend some time writing every day, whether it’s emails for work, meeting minutes, journaling, or just posting on Facebook.

But few of us get the kind of training and practice of a professional writer, even though we’re dealing with words every day.

If you’re looking to up your writing game, try these easy exercises next time you’re stuck.

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1. Write for one person first

There’s a common piece of advice about writing, which is to imagine you’re writing for just one person, even when you’re writing for many. This approach can make your writing more approachable for your readers, but it can be tricky to do.

An exercise that helps put this advice into practice, according to writer Alexandra Franzen, is to imagine someone just sent you an email asking for your advice on the topic you’re writing about. Now write your first draft as a response to that email. Imagine the way you’d structure the information you want to share if it was simply in an email to a friend.

However you would write an email for “just one person” to read… that’s exactly the way you can write an article for “lots of people” to read, too.

This exercise can be helpful to get a new piece of writing started and find some structure in how you share your ideas. It can also take away some of the pressure that comes with writing something lots of people will read.

2. Convert your writing to different formats

Sometimes a fresh perspective is all you need to get a second wind on the revision process. Try viewing your material on a different medium; it will shed a new light on the inconsistencies in the dark.V. S. Watson

A great way to see your writing in a new light is to use different formats. If you’ve ever worked a long time on a single article, memo, or even email, you’ll know how tedious it can be to work on revision after revision of the same text.

But switching formats can make your work seem new and highlight useful changes to be made.

Sean McCabe uses this process when creating his podcast. First he’ll write some notes about the topic. The he’ll record the podcast audio using his notes as a guide. Then he’ll listen back to the audio and transcribe it. Finally, an edited version of this transcription becomes the show notes that accompany the final podcast episode.

By using different formats you can also force yourself to use different skills to express your ideas, which can be helpful for solidifying what you want to say.

Try telling someone verbally about what you want to write, dictating and transcribing your first draft, or even drawing your key ideas before starting the writing process.

3. Improve your writing by editing someone else’s

A great way to learn about writing is to read a lot. But you can also pick up ideas for improving your writing by helping other people improve theirs.

One easy way to do this is to simply find an article from your Twitter feed or favorite news site, and try editing it for yourself. You can learn a lot from this exercise without even sharing your edits with the original author.

For instance, freelance content writer Jeremey DuVall finds this process helpful practice for editing his own work:

One of my least favorite activities is reading my own writing. I absolutely hate it, but I know it’s necessary. When I’m reading someone else’s writing, I can be a bit more critical, which trains my eyes to find these same mistakes the next time I’m proofing my own [blog] post.

Len Markidan, head of marketing at Groove, says this exercise helped him see the strengths of other writers and how he could employ those approaches in his own work:

When I stepped back and tried to edit it as a reader rather than a writer (e.g., “how can I make this article more useful for me?”, versus “how can I make this article sound more like me?”), I began to focus on edits that truly improved clarity and effectiveness, and that’s where I began to get real value from the exercise… I began to pick up on strong spots and internalize different ways that other writers make strong points. Later, I found myself incorporating some of those techniques in my own writing.

4. Translate your writing to poetry and back

This tip comes from Benjamin Franklin, who found it helpful when trying to improve his own writing. Franklin would write some prose, translate it into poetry, then, after enough time had passed that he’d forgotten the original, rewrite it as prose again.

Franklin chose this exercise to help him develop a bigger vocabulary, and make it easier to think of and choose the best words when writing:

But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them, which I thought I should have acquired before that time if I had gone on making verses, since the continued occasion for words of the same import, but of different length, to suit the measure, or of different sound for the rhyme, would have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for variety, and also have tended to fix that variety in my mind, and make me master of it.

Franklin used his previous experience with poetry to come up with an exercise that helped solve his problem of having too small a vocabulary. This might be too much work for long articles, but if you’re writing something short and snappy, this exercise is a great way to stretch your writing skills and improve your vocabulary in the process.

Whether you’re a full-time writer, or simply end up writing a lot as part of your everyday work, these exercises can come in handy. Sometimes it’s tricky to know where to start when writing something new, or to push through that last stage of editing. Next time you’re stuck, try switching formats, writing your first draft as if it’s a friendly email, or even translating your writing into poetry.

Do you have a favorite method for improving your writing? Let us know in the comments.

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Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.