How to be a great writer

I’m thrilled that the UX design community is catching onto the importance of writing and taking a content-driven approach. Great writing is fundamental for great user experiences. Now, I must admit, the heading is quite loaded and it’s a challenging topic to cover in a simple blog post but we can always start with my stash of ten (not-so-secretive) secrets. The key to becoming a better writer, especially for UX, is embracing the non-linear and messy process. And practice! 

1. Write a lot
The best advice I received when starting my UX transition was to launch a blog and write a lot. I didn’t understand how it could help me at the time but because of this, I discovered my superpower: taking complicated and messy ideas and turning them into compelling copy. If you’re looking to improve your writing, you have to do a lot of it. Discard any perfectionism tendencies and keep producing content on a consistent basis. Nothing replaces practice.

Action steps: Look up daily writing challenges. Keep a journal (private or public). Do a brain dump and go on a stream on consciousness. Blog often. Just write about anything, really.

2. Read a lot
A former professor once told me that I need to be reading at least ten times the amount of content that I write. And if the topic is more focused and in-depth, that number needs to be even higher. Reading exposes you to all types of writing. It is unbelievable how quickly your vocabulary will expand once you start reading extensively. Read from every genre possible even if you have favorites and diversify your landscape of inspiration. (FYI, podcasts don’t count as reading.)

Action steps: Get Medium if you don’t already and follow industry leaders. Start with short books. Revisit timeless classics from college. Ask for book recommendations. Just keep reading.

3. Get good feedback
I emphasize good because anyone can give feedback but you want ones that are solid. I find that great writers are also great editors so seek people who you believe are masters of their craft. When asking for feedback, be extremely specific about what you are looking to improve. And a word of advice: be ready to be torn apart to shreds. As a writer, you’re not always going to receive compliments. In fact, you shouldn’t. The more critique you get, the better you’ll become.

Action steps: Find a few trustworthy critics and ask for specific feedback (word choice, grammar, flow, consistency). Make edits and see what they think. Repeat the process.

4. Practice editing
First, recognize that editing your own work and editing other people’s work are two separate skill sets. They’re deceivingly similar but completely different. Get someone to edit your writing – don’t do that on your own when you’re starting out. What you should do, however, is practice editing other people’s writing. You’ll become a much better writer because you start seeing what flaws look like and become really innovative about being concise. And again, practice it a lot!

Action steps: Offer to edit your friends’ writing. Go online and look for editing challenges. Find articles that aren’t well-written and edit them. Be an advocate for consistency.

5. Know the rules
Grammar is important. Have you heard the expression, “There’s a difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit”? If you don’t get it, go back to the second grade. No one has perfect grammar, which is why it’s important to study the rules and apply them. Grammar is subjective in general so it’s hard to get it “right” but keep reading and editing and you’ll eventually pick it up. Oftentimes, getting solid feedback from others is extremely helpful.

Action steps: Study grammar rules. Find articles and videos on it. Do some practice exercises, if you must. Exercise good grammar even in casual emails and text messages.

6. Be a storyteller
Being a good writer isn’t simply about following grammatical rules and producing easy-to-read sentences. It’s also about telling a compelling story. Think about framing your ideas and story into a narrative and continuously iterate on how you make your delivery. Know the elements of good storytelling and put them into practice. Add the human touch and find ways to bring your audience into the story. Most importantly, write in your voice. Practice your authenticity.

Action steps: Study comedians – they’re some of the best storytellers. Watch TED talks about telling a great story. And if you’re storytelling for UX, read this.

7. Fail like crazy
Behind every great piece of writing is a thousand failures. I don’t know if that’s actually true, I just made that up. But the point is, you have to produce a lot of garbage in order to produce something remarkable. Failing often is necessary in every process but it’s especially required in writing. Don’t be afraid of writing terrible content and not sounding sophisticated from the beginning. Seasoned writers still produce terrible content, you just don’t see it.

Action steps: Write things that suck on purpose. Be redundant. Don’t be glamorous in your first draft. Ultimately, you need to be comfortable with letting go.

8. Commit through consistency
My life revolves around constant writing. If I’m not writing enough at work, I’m writing a lot at home. My Google Drive is insanely full of random pieces of writing. Improving your writing skills is similar to working out. You can’t just go all out at the gym for five hours and then stop working out for six months. It’s the same thing with writing. There are a lot of “muscles” that need to be exercised in order to improve your writing. Consistency is key and you have to commit to it.

Action steps: Allocate time to write every single day. Set an alarm. Block off time on your calendar. You’d be surprised that even 15 minutes can help improve your writing.

9. Identify your voice
Being able to communicate a voice through writing is built over time. Eventually, it becomes instinctual but it’s a daunting process leading up to that. Start by writing the way you speak. Read your writing out loud and edit it based on how you’d verbally say it. If you’re writing content for UX, listen to the way your users speak and emulate their voices. Reading a lot will help you distinguish what makes your voice unique and you’ll learn how to maximize that.

Action steps: Write with awareness. Practice free writing. Try out all kinds of genres and see what feels comfortable and natural to you.

10. Write for yourself
When starting out, do yourself a huge favor and just write for yourself. Be selfish. Don’t think about the readers yet. Don’t do anything to please others. Don’t use words you wouldn’t use. Don’t imitate someone else’s voice. As long as you have the luxury to keep writing for yourself, do it and take advantage of it. People will have things to say no matter what but I recommend that you develop the confidence to stand by your work and be proud of it.

Action steps: Simple – don’t be afraid to be sincere. Just the way you would in life, put yourself first. You’re permitted to be a selfish writer.

Some resources:

Although many of these points apply to anyone who is looking to improve their writing, I rounded up helpful resources that specifically target UX writing, design, content strategy and all that good stuff.

In conclusion:

Writing is a very personal endeavor. There is no one proper way to become a great writer and there is no one right process. To be frank, my writing process is an absolute mess and it drives me crazy. But I also believe that there is no such thing as a clean way to write. The beauty of writing is in its unstraightforwardness (if that’s even a word). Ultimately, it comes down to practicing a lot and failing a lot. Fall in love with the process and your passion for writing will follow.




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