Why Didn’t I Know This SOONER?!
Who would’ve thought Mrs. Stevenson was right?
Writing really is an essential life skill that will take you places.
If you’re reading this right now, it’s probably a crucial part of your career.
There’s money and livelihood involved.
It’s safe to say the better you write, the more successful you will be at making money online, building an audience for your blog, selling products, finding clients, and basically achieving any online endeavor you may have.
If I had known this in high school, I would’ve tried harder in English class.
Sorry Mrs. Stevenson.
I owe you one.
This article is broken up into three parts – basic, intermediate, and advanced.
These skill levels are totally made up by me, but they do get more intricate as the article goes on.
Whether this is the first article you’ve read on improving your writing, or you’re a hardened pro reading this to judge how “powerful” these skills really are, I suggest reading the whole thing.
I haven’t honed these skills 100%, and I work on them in every piece.
But I’m fully aware of them. That’s why my writing will continue to get better.
The same is true of you. So even if you think you’ve got a skill handled, read it anyway.
You may find a hidden gem to propel your writing to the next level.
(Which we all know means higher pay, more clients, and beach-side martinis in Thailand, right? RIGHT?!
I’ll just keep telling myself that, anyway.)
On to our 19 powerful writing skills that will supercharge your copy.
You can also download this article as a pdf ebook right here or by clicking the image below.
Part I. 6 Basic Writing Skills that Will Tighten Your Copy
Writing Skill #1 – Watch your that’s
The word that is used so much that it can often be thrown out straight away.
Most of us default to writing that throughout our copy. It helps us connect different thoughts as we’re writing.
This is fine in your first draft. But in your second draft, you should cut out most of your that‘s.
Because they slow down the overall flow. Check out these examples:
“The word that is used so much that it can often be thrown out straight away.”
“The word that is used so much it can often be thrown out straight away.”
“I didn’t know that I shouldn’t be driving on the left side of the road.”
“I didn’t know I shouldn’t be driving on the left side of the road.”
The same meaning is communicated, but it’s conveyed in fewer words.
Instances arise when that is appropriate, such as these sentences:
“That isn’t the right thing to do, Tommy” or “Please bring me that pot over there.”
Other than that, throw it out.
Bonus tip: When editing, use Ctrl+F or Command+F in your word processor to open up the ‘Find’ option. Type in “that,” and read each sentence to see which ones you can delete.
Writing Skill #2 – How to use active voice for more exciting copy
If you have read any sort of writing advice, it probably discussed the difference between passive and active voice.
In general, use the active voice whenever you can. It gives your sentences more power.
Active voice also tends to flow better.
“The car was pushed uphill by two break dancers.”
“Two break dancers pushed the car uphill.”
In passive voice, the subject is being acted upon (the car being pushed by two break dancers.) In active voice, the subject is performing the action (the break dancers pushed the car.)
Writing Hack: Look out for the word “by.” If something is done (or acted upon) by something, you’re most likely using the passive voice.
Use active voice whenever possible to give your copy a more robust feeling.
Writing Skill #3 – Get rid of clichés and jargon
The apple of my eye.
Made of money.
Raining cats and dogs.
These are all clichés, and they’re lazy ways to convey ideas.
Clichés are fine in your first draft. They help your thoughts flow, so you can write through to the end of the piece.
In your second draft, come up with something more concrete. What are you actually trying to say?
Figure it out. Then say it.
The apple of my eye is actually my beloved significant other.
Someone who is made of money is actually the billionaire CEO of Fake Studios, Inc.
If it’s raining cats and dogs, it’s actually just raining.
The same goes for industry jargon. Unless you’re writing directly to an audience in a particular industry (who will know exactly what you’re talking about) industry-specific terms won’t make sense to a majority of readers.
Write in layman’s terms.
The industry folks won’t know the difference, and you’ll reach a greater number of readers.
(Meaning increased readership, more social shares, more traffic, higher conversions, and all of that fun stuff)
Writing Skill #4 – A simple trick to conversational writing
Contractions are combinations of two words.
Can and not contract to can’t.
Would and have contract to would’ve.
Who and is contract to who’s.
Conversational copy is easier to read. The reader feels like they’re talking to someone, rather than just reading.
It makes reading more enjoyable.
Contractions are a huge part of everyday spoken language. If a conversational tone is your goal, contractions should be sprinkled throughout your copy.
When I first learned this trick a while back, I went nuts with it.
My client asked me to cool it on the contractions, because some of my articles were getting sent to HuffPost , and the editors found them lazy.
Find a happy medium with contractions, so your writing feels like a natural conversation.
Conversational copy is becoming more and more important for businesses that want to connect with their customers through websites, blogs, and the like.
To do this, they want their writing to be relatable.
Conversational copy is what forms that connection.
Writing Skill #5 – “Very” and “really” – Remove them for more powerful copy
Are you very tired? Or are you tired?
Are you really mad? Or are you mad?
Very and really are often superfluous words. They’re not needed.
Unnecessary words should be thrown in the trash. (Or wherever they go when you hit “delete.”)
Using these words in your writing is natural. It’s what we would say in-person to emphasize our thoughts and feelings.
Despite our desire for conversational copy, we shouldn’t write exactly how we speak. It’s lazy and unprofessional in many cases.
First draft: very and really are perfectly fine.
Second draft: take them out and re-read the sentence.
Does it still work? If so, delete ‘em permanently.
Writing Skill #6 – Strategically employ italics and bold-type to influence your reader’s mind
Italics and bold – our final basic skill.
You may have noticed my use of italics for specific words in this article.
What happened when you read those words?
Your mind should have emphasized them.
When you want a sentence to flow a certain way in your reader’s mind, strategic use of italics and bold-type can help solidify the idea you’re conveying.
“Copytactics is the top site for writing tips in the World.”
“Copytactics is the top site for writing tips in the World.”
“Copytactics is the top site for writing tips in the World.”
“Copytactics is the top site for writing tips in the World.”
“Copytactics is the top site for writing tips in the World.”
Use italics and bold selectively.
Emphasizing too much of your copy leads to no emphasis at all, because nothing stands out.
But when you pick and choose the right words, your writing becomes more powerful.
A Quick Recap of Our Basic Writing Skills
- Watch your that’s. Most of them can be deleted.
- Use active voice for stronger copy.
- Get rid of clichés and jargon. Write what you are actually trying to say.
- Contractions contribute to conversational copy.
- “Very” and “really” are often unnecessary.
- Strategically italicize and boldwords and phrases to emphasize them.
Are you ready for more?
“Yes, Mr. Karp!”
Part II. 6 Intermediate Writing Skills that Will Strengthen Your Copy
Rather than specific no-no’s to avoid in your copy, these skills will teach you how to structure your writing for maximum impact and flow.
Let’s get started.
Writing Skill #7 – “In order to” and “start to”
I first read this tip in an article by Alexis Grant.
Most people don’t realize this, but these phrases can be replaced with something much simpler.
And it will make an immediate difference in their writing.
“In order to” can be replaced with “to”.
“Start to” can be replaced with the next word in the sentence.
Don’t believe me? Check this out:
“In order to run the marathon, you have to pay $50.”
“To run the marathon, you have to pay $50.”
“When you start to lose focus in class, give yourself a quick slap in the face.”
“When you lose focus in class, give yourself a quick slap in the face.”
“In order to be cool, you have to read Copytactics every day.”
“To be cool, you have to read Copytactics every day.”
“They had been gone for 2 months, and started to feel homesick.”
“They had been gone for 2 months, and felt homesick.”
The second sentences have better flow, they’re more powerful, and they feel more natural.
Notice these phrases when you’re editing and find a way to replace them.
Writing Skill #8 – How to write shorter sentences that hook your reader
We all know what run-on sentences are.
They’re too long, they’re not concise, and they lose the reader in the process.
When your sentences are too long, readers get bored. They lose focus. Their mind starts to wonder.
Don’t let your reader’s mind wonder.
Keep your sentences short and concise.
“There was a man named Harry who loved to play basketball and his kids couldn’t stand to watch him play because he was so awful at dribbling that it would bounce off his shoe and go out of bounds right where they were sitting and they would have to throw it back in embarrassment.”
This sentence is way too long.
Let’s break it up to come up with something more readable.
“Harry loved to play basketball, but his kids couldn’t stand to watch him. He was so awful at dribbling the ball would bounce off his shoe and go out of bounds. Not only that, it always seemed to go right where they were sitting. They would have to throw it back, utterly embarrassed.”
Cut your sentences down. Break them apart by using transitions to flow ideas into one another.
You can also use conjunctions (and, but, so, or) to begin some of your sentences.
Many writers are trained not to do this.
But in this case, forget about what Ms. Stevenson told you.
When deciding between “proper” and “effective,” choose effective every time. (click to tweet this epic quote)
Writing Skill #9 – Improve the impact of your copy with simple language
Writing is meant to be read.
It’s also meant to be read by as many people as possible – to spread its message.
Studies indicate the average adult’s reading level is somewhere around 9th grade.
College students (as a group) aren’t doing much better.
A large percentage of the population needs simple language to understand what’s being said.
And an even larger percentage just prefers simpler language, no matter their education.
If you can say the same thing with a simpler word or phrase, do it.
In addition —-> Also
A number of —-> Many
Locate —-> Find
Made their exit —-> Left
It may not seem like a huge difference, but as you apply simpler language to your copy, you will notice how much easier it is to read.
And if you’re writing copy to increase conversions, make sales, and persuade people to act, the more people you can reach, the more money you will make.
Writing Skill #10 – How to work around “there are” and write excellent sentences
Here’s another great tip from Alexis Grant. And I have seen it in many other places, as well.
There are many ways to write a great sentence, but only a few ways to write an excellent one.
One of those ways is to rearrange “there are” whenever it pops up.
A sentence that starts with this phrase should send an immediate signal to your brain saying there’s a better way to start it.
Check this out:
“There are many ways to write a great sentence.”
“Many ways exist to write a great sentence.”
“You can write a great sentence in many ways.”
“A great sentence can be written in many ways.”
When you read “there are” in your copy, find a way to work around it.
Turn those great sentences into excellent ones.
Writing Skill #11 – Using strategic punctuation to conduct your reader’s thoughts
Italics and bold-type help readers flow through your writing.
Punctuation can do the same thing.
It can dictate how your copy is read, giving you control over how it’s portrayed.
As a writer, you are the conductor of your reader’s thoughts. (click to tweet this epic quote)
You choose how they emphasize certain phrases. You choose when they pause before the next idea, when they speed up, and when they slow down.
Some of the most effective punctuation involves commas, dashes, semicolons, and brackets.
Let’s see how they work together.
Commas cause your reader to pause in the middle of a sentence. They let your reader take a breather before continuing.
Wrong: “I can almost dunk now as I grew 2 inches over summer.”
Right: “I can almost dunk now, as I grew 2 inches over summer.”
Dashes help connect a related idea to a sentence. This idea doesn’t quite fit in the sentence’s natural flow, but it helps with the reader’s understanding.
“Writing is meant to be read by as many people as possible.”
“Writing is meant to be read by as many people as possible – to spread its message.”
Semicolons can be used whenever it’s appropriate to insert either a period or a comma (the symbol is literally a period over a comma).
The idea doesn’t warrant a full stop, but it warrants a longer pause than a comma.
“I will be over in 20 minutes; and you better be ready to go.”
“You won’t be able to see my puppy later; we will have sold it by then.”
Brackets are much like dashes. They tack on an idea that doesn’t quite fit, but aids in understanding.
“Editing images in Photoshop can be difficult (if you don’t know what you’re doing).”
“The trash can (known as a ‘dustbin,’ in South Africa) can only be put out on Tuesdays.”
Writing Skill #12 – A simple way to suck more people into your content
Make your paragraphs shorter.
If you’re blogging, short paragraphs are a must.
They make writing easier to digest and faster to read.
It’s the hallmark of online content.
Most people simply don’t have the time or the patience to plow through a paragraph that’s 8-10 lines deep. They will give up and move on.
To keep a reader’s attention, break your paragraphs into one, two, or three lines.
Break them into separate ideas, as well.
It’s easier on the eyes.
“Blogs are great for SEO, they’re great for educating readers, and they’re great for spreading your brand to more people. However, many business blogs fail. Here’s why:
They view their content as a commodity — a sales strategy — and that’s it. They don’t see blogging as a long term strategy that requires consistent effort. They think a couple posts here and there will drive traffic. Their posts don’t speak the reader’s language, because they’re filled with industry jargon that consumers don’t understand. These businesses don’t format their articles to be read quickly, easily, and effectively. With the vast amount of information vying for people’s attention, this is crucial.”
This breaks down to…
“Blogs are great for SEO, they’re great for educating readers, and they’re great for spreading your brand to more people.
However, many business blogs fail.
They view their content as a commodity — a sales strategy — and that’s it.
They don’t see blogging as a long term strategy that requires consistent effort.
They think a couple posts here and there will drive traffic.
Their posts don’t speak the reader’s language, because they’re filled with industry jargon that consumers don’t understand.
These businesses don’t format their articles to be read quickly, easily, and effectively.
With the vast amount of information vying for people’s attention, this is crucial.”
Break your paragraphs down to 1-3 lines.
Your writing will easier be to read, and it will attract more people.
A Quick Recap of Our Intermediate Writing Skills…
- Replace “in order to” and “start to” with more succinct words.
- Make your sentences simpler by breaking them up – reaching more readers in the process.
- Use simple words to have the same effect.
- Replace “there are” with the next word in the sentence.
- Use commas, dashes, semicolons, and brackets to orchestrate your reader’s thoughts.
- Break your copy into short paragraphs that are easier to read (1-3 lines).
How’s it going?
Part III. 6 Advanced Writing Skills that Will Supercharge Your Copy
(These skills are adapted from Bruce Kaplan’s glorious and highly recommended book, Editing Made Easy. It’s a book on writing concise copy that’s actually concise. Go figure.)
In the first part, we discussed specific (dare I say it?) tactics for concise writing.
In the second part, we discussed how to structure your writing for maximum impact.
In this section, we’ll go in-depth into the skills that put it all together and supercharge your copy.
Let’s get to it.
Writing Skill #13 – The only mistake writers make many times
Depending on where you stick only, the meaning of your sentence changes.
The best way to explain is through examples.
“Only I have enough money to buy three tickets.”
(I am the sole person with enough money to buy three tickets)
“I have only enough money to buy three tickets.”
(I have enough money to buy three tickets, and that’s it)
“Chris wants to learn how to play the banjo, only.”
(That’s all Chris wants to learn how to play)
“Chris wants to be the only one learning how to play the banjo.”
(He doesn’t want anyone else to learn)
“Chris only wants to learn how to play the banjo.”
(He just wants to learn. He’s not actually trying – lazy bastard)
You may think you’re saying one thing by putting only in a certain position. But your reader could interpret it a different way.
As soon as you write a sentence with only in it, determine if your reader is going to perceive it the way you want them to.
Writing Skill #14 – How to turn abstract nouns into verbs that boost the speed of your copy
Words like speculation, communication, and redemption are abstract nouns.
Abstract nouns are nouns you can’t physically touch and feel.
Here are some more examples.
They can be turned into verbs with a simple rearrangement, boosting the excitement and speed of your copy.
“Investors will begin the speculation of gold futures once Monday rolls around.”
“Investors will speculate on gold futures once Monday rolls around.”
“Communication could be better between them.”
“They need to communicate better.”
“The redemption of the team is their most important goal.”
“Their most important goal is redeeming themselves.”
Abstract nouns can be tricky to spot and modify. Look for certain endings, such as -tion, -ism, and -ness. These will tell you whether the word is an abstract noun.
Switch the word to its verb form, and rearrange the sentence so it flows nicely.
Writing Skill #15 – The common mistake writers make between which and that
Many people interchange which and that like they’re the same word.
Here’s the basic rule:
A comma is placed before which whenever it introduces a separate bit of information. It also introduces an idea that isn’t necessary to the meaning of the sentence.
We do not place a comma before that, and it usually introduces an idea that is necessary to the sentence.
“Our main car, which we drive, is a Toyota Corolla.”
“Our main car that we drive is a Toyota Corolla.”
We wouldn’t say: “Our main car which we drive is a Toyota Corolla.”
“The eggs over there, which are for Aunt Mary, are full of GMOs.”
“The eggs over there that are for Aunt Mary are full of GMOs.”
We wouldn’t say: “The eggs over there which are for Aunt Mary are full of GMOs.”
If you have tried both and can’t decide, go with that.
Writing Skill #16 – Tautological words – Remove redundancy (and become a smart-ass)
Tautologies are redundant statements. They repeat the same meaning.
You will be surprised how often you catch yourself once you’re trained to spot them.
“Cold ice” (ice is inherently cold)
“Rise up” (if you’re rising, you’re going up)
“Over-exaggerating” (if someone is exaggerating, it’s already overly excessive)
“A dry desert” (all deserts are dry)
“8 P.M. at night” (P.M. is nighttime)
You can increase the speed of your writing by taking out the extra details in redundant statements.
And if you want to be a smart-ass at a party, you can bust someone whenever they say a tautological statement.
You may not be the coolest cat around.
At least you’ll be right.
Writing Skill #17 – Split infinitives – To split or not to split?
The infinitive is the basic form of a verb.
To run, to jump, to fly, to eat, to sleep, to walk.
We split the infinitive by throwing an adverb in there.
To quickly run. To safely jump. To rapidly fly. To hungrily eat. To briskly walk.
Many see this as sacrilege, claiming that the adverb should be placed after the infinitive.
To run quickly. To jump safely. To fly rapidly. To eat hungrily. To walk briskly.
At first, I thought placing the adverb after the infinitive was obviously logical.
But after reading a few examples, I wasn’t so stubborn.
“He had to quickly run up the stairs to get away.”
“He had to run quickly up the stairs to get away.”
“He had to run up the stairs to get away quickly.”
The third example is typically claimed as grammatically correct. (Not splitting the infinitive.)
I think certain cases call for the split infinitive, and some work better by placing the adverb outside.
For you, it will depend on the specific sentence and the flow of your copy. Just know there is a difference.
Test out splitting and not splitting the infinitive, and choose which one sounds best.
Writing Skill #18 – How to Write Epic Intros that Will Hook Readers
And we come to the final skill!
I struggle with my intro paragraphs, because I know there is so much on the line.
The pressure is on.
Besides the headline, the introduction is the most important part of your piece.
If your intro sucks, people won’t read the rest of your article, no matter how good it is.
It’s that simple.
So you have a responsibility to your readers to keep them engaged.
If your intro isn’t engaging enough, you’re doing the rest of your article a disservice.
Remember: The whole point is for writing to be read.
So, how do we write an epic intro?
Step one: hit them with the most compelling idea early on
An epic intro sucks the reader in.
Do this by busting out the main purpose for the whole article. Spill the beans if you have to, but it must be interesting enough to spark the reader’s curiosity.
If you have a killer headline that says, “Science Has Proven Money Does Grow on Trees” and you begin your article with “Scientists in New Hampshire have discovered how to turn leaves into money,” that’s some epic news. Don’t bury it down in the depths of your article.
Hit them with it early on. Your reader will be dying to know how they figured it out.
That curiosity will drive them to read the rest of your article.
So, step one of an epic intro: hit them with the most intriguing idea or benefit the reader will gain from reading your article.
Step two: break your intro into tiny paragraphs.
Readers are more likely to read past the intro if it looks harmless.
Harmless intros are made of short paragraphs – sometimes broken up into one sentence per line break.
A block of 6-8 sentences will scare many readers off.
3-5 short lines of introduction will attract more readers.
Step three: lead your reader into the body copy.
Don’t just introduce the most compelling idea, break it up into nice, easily-digestible chunks, and then leave them hanging.
Give your reader a little nudge into the rest of your content. Say something as simple as “Continue reading to find out how to turn leaves into money.”
It just sounds nice. It prepares the reader for what’s coming, and it reminds them why they’re about to read this amazing article in the first place.
Steps to an epic intro:
- Hit them with the most compelling idea early on.
- Break it into tiny paragraphs.
- Give them a simple yet decisive nudge into the rest of your content.
The rest is up to the brilliant writing skills you learned in the rest of this article.
And conquer your content.
A Quick Recap of Our Advanced Writing Skills
- Watch out for only and how it changes a sentence’s meaning.
- Turn abstract nouns into verbs for more exciting copy.
- Which and that are not the same words. Use them appropriately.
- Keep an eye out for tautologies, or redundant statements.
- Decide whether to split the infinitive (placing an adverb before the verb).
- Write epic intros, and practically force the reader to read the rest of your piece.
BONUS SKILL! (#19)
Break the rules every once in a while.
You won’t go to jail for using an abstract noun when it could be a verb, or for writing a tautological statement.
Use your best judgment. Feel the flow of the sentence. Do whatever feels right.
The point is to communicate your message as effectively as you can.
If you achieve that, you’ve written great copy you can be proud of.
What writing skills have help you along the way? Would you add anything to this list?
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