The Internet is littered with articles that tell you how to land high-paying gigs and where to find them. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype that freelance writing is a lucrative career and forget that your ability to write well is crucial for success.
The harsh truth is that you can cold-pitch as much as you want, but you won’t make money if you write poorly. Sure, you may make the odd dollar. But if you’re only eking out a living, what’s the point?
So, you have three options: keep writing badly for peanuts, quit, or improve your English writing skills. If you’re reading this guide, I’m sure you’ll opt for the last option.
But the question is: How can you improve your English writing skills?
To gather insights, I posed that question in a Facebook writing group with 2,000 members. I got many responses – some of the usual ones like writing practice, but many I’d never thought of.
Digging deeper, I conducted a search on Google, and frequented the pages of Quora. The answers kept coming…
All that advice can be overwhelming: Where do you start? What resources should you use?
To address these questions, I created this ultimate guide on how to improve your English writing skills. The guide covers everything from writing for yourself, following a writing process and hiring an editor to reading, learning from the best and online resources.
This guide will not only help improve your punctuation and grammar, but transform your writing from dull to powerful, boring to engaging, and impersonal to personal. It’ll help refine your writing skills so your impeccable flow connects readers with you and your words.
There will always be room for improvement, no matter where you are on your writing journey; strive for that to increase your chances of freelance writing success.
Enough talking, let’s jump into it.
Write. After all, You’re a Writer, Right?
The only way to perfect a skill is through practice. So, take out your notebook or open up your laptop and start typing.
Write for Yourself
I have a friend who writes a column for a national newspaper in South Africa. We were sharing a cup of coffee when he told me that writing for himself has improved the quality of his work for his client.
So, keep a diary or start a blog. Revisit old work to see what you can improve. The art of writing lies in rewriting, so practise it.
Focus on Small Writing Tasks
I always write with the aim of improving something. I’ll give you an example: When I started freelancing, I was writing for Lifehack. One editor commented that I write well but mix up third and second person. I worked on that, and my writing has since improved.
Another example was when reading “On Writing Well”, by William Zinsser. The book taught me the importance of being ruthless; the idea of simplicity; shredding an article to the core; rewriting and editing until that 2,000-word article is half as long.
With that in mind, here are some writing tasks and tips to focus on:
Your writing is strengthened through writing in active voice. Write in active voice to strengthen your writing.
2. Look for simpler alternatives. For example, use “skill” instead of “proficiency” or “cut” instead of “eliminate”. Struggling to find simpler alternatives? Look them up on Plain English Campaign’s A-Z of alternative words or carry a dictionary.
3. Replace a phrase with one word. For example, use “suddenly” instead of “all of a sudden’, and “now” instead of “at this point in time”. Daily Writing Tips provides a list of 50 Plain Language Substitutions for Wordy Phrases.
4. Cut prepositional phrases. Common prepositions include of, in, about, during, like, into, through, without, around and among. Remove them and reconstruct sentences for clearer, more concise communication.
For example, write “the child ran toward the cliff’s edge” instead of “the child ran toward the edge of the cliff”. I cut two words there. Read The Sneaky Little Trick for Sharp, Snappy Writing and How to Improve Your Writing: Eliminate Prepositions.
5. Cut unnecessary words. For example, you can remove “that” from many sentences and retain the meaning. Read 43 Words You Should Cut from Your Writing Immediately.
6. Remove adverbs, such as just, generally, actually, and really. They add nothing.
7. Use long sentences sparingly, especially online. You don’t want to tire your readers. Make it easy for readers to understand what you’re saying.
8. Look for alternatives to common words like great, nice, amazing, and good to spice up your writing. Scan the following three infographics:
- 200 Words to Use Instead of “Good
- 111 Words to Use Instead of Great
- 28 Boring Words and What to Use Instead
Spice Up Your Writing
Do you want to spice up your writing even further? In her article, 27 Ways to Improve Your Writing Skills and Escape Content Mediocrity, Henneke of Enchanted Marketing lists 9 mini-skills you can practise to improve your writing.
She mentions writing good sentences, becoming more conversational by including questions, composing smooth transitions, experimenting with your voice by changing punctuation, cooking up metaphors, and playing with mini-stories.
She also talks about how to “make your content more nourishing” by practising empathy, applying the principles of persuasion, and using examples to bring your copy to life. She’s a powerful writer. Read her article. Learn from her.
Inject Personality Into Your Writing
Your personality makes your writing unique, helps build a connection with your readers and increases engagement. You can inject your personality by writing in the first person and sharing your experience.
For example, two writers write about the same topic. The first writer writes: Many writers start freelance writing because they need extra income. The second writer writes: I started freelance writing because I lost my job and needed an income in six weeks or I’d face eviction. Which article are you more likely to enjoy?
Create Writing Habits That Stick
Building the right habits will improve your English writing skills and help you produce content quicker. Because the more you write, the quicker and better you get.
1.Develop the habit of writing daily, whether for yourself or for clients. They say it takes a minimum of 21 days to form a habit, so set a timeframe and commit to writing a certain number of words every day. In his post, Three Steps to Start a Daily Writing Habit, Jeff from Goins Writer mentions picking a space, setting a time, and committing to a goal.
2. Set a timer and write. Using the Pomodoro time-management technique developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s, you set a time (originally it was 25 minutes, but you can change it to suit your needs) and focus on one activity (writing). Rinse and repeat. Add the Marinara: Pomodoro Timer Chrome extension to get started.
3. People write better in different environments. Experiment to see what works for you. I need to alter my environment regularly to stay energised, moving from my room to a coffee shop, and even a friend’s place.
4. Experiment with writing at different times. I’m most productive between 09:00 and 14:00, and in the evenings for a couple of hours. What works for you? 5. Build a writing process where you research, outline, write, and edit. I discuss this in detail in the next section.
Follow a Writing Process
Following a process gives you focus, direction, and the creative freedom to write. Start by researching.
Pick Your Subject and Conduct Research
Research equips you with the ammunition you need to write a strong article. Use the Pomodoro Technique to focus on finding articles online. Bookmark relevant content, read the content and jot down the key points. Now compile an outline.
Your Writing Outline
Your outline is your plan. Outlines vary in complexity, depending on the topic. Regardless, the more thorough your outline, the better.
Create an outline with your introduction, body (with key points) and conclusion. I usually write my introduction first to give myself direction, though I often rewrite it later. Create headings, subheadings and write key points under these headings.
Write Your First Draft
Only write. If you’re writing and self-editing simultaneously, you limit creative expression. Don’t go back and correct spelling mistakes; although I know your obsessive side wants to. Hell, I just went back and corrected a spelling mistake. I didn’t say it would be easy, but it’ll get easier with practice.
Now let your article breathe for 10 minutes, a day, or an hour, depending on deadlines. I usually recommend overnight.
Revise Your First Draft
Return to your draft and check the flow, grammar and spelling. Remember those writing mini-tasks? Practise those.
Look for ways to spice up your article. Include examples, statistics, or links to other articles on the topic that add value.
Lastly, read your work out loud. You’ll quickly pick up on a lack of flow and where you need to improve readability.
Find Someone Else to Edit Your Work
It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve read an article; by the end, you’re blind to mistakes. Your brain may block out errors and fill in words automatically.
So, send your article to someone you can trust to edit it – a friend or fellow freelance writer. At WriteWorldwide, we share our posts among ourselves before we publish them.
Editing someone else’s work is an important skill; being critical of their work makes you critical of yours.
Better yet, hire an editor.
Hire an Editor
You may not have an editor because you can’t afford one or don’t believe that you’ll get value for your money. I thought like this, too. I get it: you earn a set rate from clients and hiring an editor digs into that.
But hiring an editor will improve the quality of your writing. I took the leap and hired Spike Wyatt. I thought, “Hey, let me see how this goes. Worst-case scenario is it doesn’t work, I lose some money, and move on.”
Working with Spike was an excellent decision that has improved the quality of my writing. Spike is ruthless. He checks the flow, spelling, grammar and punctuation. He also fact-checks the articles and tells me where the writing lacks heart.
We exchange documents via Google Docs, which tracks edits so I can review changes before I accept them.
I learn from those changes and infuse them into future articles. Aside from improving my writing skills, I know that every time I send Spike my articles, I’ll get constructive feedback. It’s like having a psychic.
Ultimately, you don’t know what you don’t know until someone shows you that you don’t know it. There’s always room for improvement. Hiring an editor is an investment in yourself, your writing skills and your business.
But How do You Find the Right Editor?
Fiverr and Upwork are nifty places to find editors at reasonable rates. But you get what you pay for, so I would recommend asking for a referral.
Another writer’s positive editing experience speaks volumes for the editor’s work. So, ask around, join Facebook groups, and make connections with people to find an editor who suits your style and needs.
An editor who has in-depth knowledge of your niche helps. They can assess industry-specific terminology, correct mistakes, and provide insider information. I’m currently writing technical blog posts about security headers and online privacy for a client, and Spike’s IT experience is helpful.
Aside from Spike, we recommend Kate Casper and Anita Smith. In Yassir’s article, Your Brief Guide to Hiring an Editor as a Non-Native English Freelance Writer, he also mentions Sara Pack.
You can negotiate rates with your editor in the same way you negotiate with your freelance writing clients. By offering recurring work, you can ask for a lower rate. However, just like you want your client to pay you well, editors also want to make money, so don’t low-ball them. It’s tacky.
When I approached Spike, I negotiated a rate that we were both comfortable with. I now give him recurring work and pay him more than we initially negotiated because I see the value he provides.
Just make sure that you’re clear up front on the services included in the fee.
Proofreading is fine, but if you take improvement seriously, you need an editor who offers premium services like checking flow, structure and facts.
Read, Read, and Read. Then Read Some More.
Writing and reading. Can you imagine one without the other? No doubt you’ve heard the advice that you need to read more to improve the quality of your writing.
As clichéd as it sounds, there’s a reason for it: reading provides inspiration, gives you new ideas, improves your grasp of the language, exposes you to new words, builds vocabulary, and improves sentence construction.
So, read journals, the newspaper, well-written novels, online articles, and books on improving your writing skills.
If you’re not sure where to start, let me point you in the right direction.
The Guardian has a list of 1,000 Novels Everyone Must Read across categories including comedy, crime, science, love, and travel. If that’s overwhelming, Modern Library has a list of the 100 Best Novels.
Also, if you’re cash-strapped, consult the Internet Archives of the WaybackMachine. It’s a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, websites and more. You can search for and download many novels and books for free.
Read Books on Writing Well
There are also many books dedicated to improving your writing skills, including:
1. The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr and E.B. White – considered by many to be the “writer’s Bible”.
2. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott – Anne Lamott shares her life story. She examines humanity, living and writing.
3. On Writing, by Stephen King – King combines his life and career story with practical writing advice.
4. The Writing Life, by Marie Arena – a great in-depth study on writing and how to do it well.
5. Stein On Writing, by Sol Stein – Stein offers insight into his 50-year career as a novelist, playwright, and editor.
6. Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, by David Lipsky – Rolling Stone profiled David Foster Wallace for a cover story that they scrapped. Lipsky shares the transcript of the interview and lets us into his mind and working process.
7. Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg – another guide for becoming a better writer, but with a twist. Goldberg looks at the issue of writer’s block, and also how to use Buddhist meditation and practices to improve your writing skills.
8. How To Write a Damn Good Novel, by James N. Frey – Frey focuses largely on structure, and how to keep your readers engrossed in your book.
9. Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury – Bradbury provides a fun and refreshing way to release the creative genius within.This book will help you rediscover your passion for writing.
10. On Writing Well, by William Zinsser – Zinsser presents his take on the mechanics of writing in a book about structural tips, tricks, and modes of thinking that make a great writer.
“On Writing Well” was the first self-improvement book I read when starting my freelance writing career. It changed the way I thought about writing and encouraged me to pursue the art. I remember reading it in a coffee shop on a rainy day and thinking to myself, “I like writing and I want to pursue it.” I haven’t looked back.
Read Well-Written Blog Posts
Online writing is different from writing novels and non-fiction, although there are universal principles that hold true, such as creating a hook, making it personal, and writing concisely.
Blog writing is usually more conversational. You break paragraphs into bitesize chunks as people on the Internet tend to scan your content instead of reading it.
Someone who blogs well is Neil Patel. Read any of his posts to see what I mean.
To get started, read SEO Copywriting: How to Write Content for People and Optimize for Google. Analyze:
- The length of his paragraphs – sometimes they’re one sentence.
- How he includes images to break up the text.
- How he talks to his readers with the use of ‘you’, ‘your’, you’re’.
- How he includes links to statistics, case studies, and other relevant material to support claims.
- How he spices up his writing with questions.
Learn From The Best
Besides reading books by top novelists and blog writers, you can follow successful freelance writers and copywriters online. Sign up to their newsletters and learn from them. These people make themselves available to help you.
Sure, they often sell products through their newsletters – they’re running a business, after all – but there’s a ton you can learn in how they write. Some offer courses – often free – to help you become a freelancer.
Here are seven people I recommend:
1. Ben Settle is a world leader in email copywriting education. While he specialises in email copywriting, you can apply his principles to writing copy for sites, blog posts, white papers, and eBooks. He’ll teach you How to Write Great Copy.
2. Carol Tice started freelance writing in 2006. She runs Make a Living Writing which provides “practical help for hungry writers”. She has a treasure trove of content, resources and useful writing courses that will improve your skills.
3. Jorden Roper broke into freelance writing after quitting her day job and was earning $5,000/month within four months. She runs Writing Revolt that provides “no-bullshit, in-depth freelance writing advice”.
Jorden epitomises what it means to inject your personality into your writing. A recent article she wrote detailed how to write viral blog posts using “The Space Method”.
4. Nigerian-born Bamidele Onibalusi is proof that being a non-native freelance writer is not a disadvantage. He started blogging at the age of 16, and has been featured in so many publications that he’s become known as the “King of Guest Blogging”. He has impeccable flow. Visit Writers in Charge to learn from his writing.
6. Jeff Goins is a best-selling author, keynote speaker and blogger. He runs Goins Writer. Besides his blog and podcasts, he has writing resources with links to guides on how to improve your writing skills. One book he links to, which is a gem, is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
7. Henneke Duistermaat is a copywriter, marketer, and runs Enchanting Marketing, which provides free resources to improve your writing, make it more persuasive, and win more clients. Books and courses include (among others) “How to Write Seductive Web Copy”, “Learn How to Write Fascinating Blog Posts and Win More Clients”, and a free 16-part “Snackable” writing course for busy people.
Pro Tip: Learn from successful freelance writers with WriteWorldwide’s reader and writer interviews. Beyond tips on how to improve your English writing skills, they’ll help build your freelance writing career.
Supplement your reading, writing, and learning from others with the many online resources that will improve your writing skills. Here, I’ve curated a list of the top tools and websites.
If there are any you feel I’ve missed, please let me know and I’ll add them. I’ve tried to focus on the top resources.
Best Online Tools
Here are 9 of the best online tools to improve your writing skills:
1. Hemingway App
Improve the readability and quality of your content with the Hemingway App. It identifies passive voice, adverbs, simpler alternatives for words, and complex sentences. Use the recommendations to make your writing bold and clear.
The Ginger App will help you write faster and better though their grammar checker, sentence rephraser, dictionary, text reader, and personal trainer that creates personalised practice sessions based on your mistake
Grammarly eliminates grammatical errors and enhances writing quality. I use the free version as part of my editing process, before I paste my text into the Hemingway Editor.
Upgrade to a premium account for $30/month or $139.95/year for more corrections, customised checks and plagiarism-checking features.
4. Google Docs
Google Docs is superb for sharing your articles with your editor. Using the “suggestion” feature, your editor can make live edits, and you can look at their changes before accepting them. Infuse those changes to improve your own writing.
5. Daily Page
Practice makes perfect. Daily Page helps you form a writing habit by sending you a daily writing prompt. You have a day to respond.
ZenPen provides a distraction-free environment for your writing. With a bare-bones interface, you can focus on what matters: writing.
7. Twinword Writer
Twinword’s writing interface senses when you pause on a word and suggests a synonym. The tool will save you time looking for synonyms, and will inject life into your writing.
The ProWritingAid editor analyses readability and sentence structure, and identifies overused words, sticky sentences (with too many common words), and your use of passive voice and adverbs.
WritePls curates the best articles across categories such as general, fiction, non-fiction, emails, and growth hacking. It provides access to many online resources and books.
I’ve curated a list of 10 top websites you can consult for access to guides, courses, and other useful online writing resources.
1. The Punctuation Guide
After Jordan Penn searched the web for a comprehensive guide to American punctuation, and didn’t find one, he created it. I consult The Punctuation Guide regularly, especially when I’m writing magazine articles.
2. Hubspot Internet Marketing Style Guide
HubSpot is a world leader in inbound marketing. Good writing is crucial to the success of any inbound marketing strategy, so it’s no surprise that HubSpot has created the Internet Marketing Written Style Guide.
In the words of HubSpot, this free guide “will improve the writing across your marketing assets”, ensuring it’s well-written, persuasive and trustworthy.
3. Oxford English Grammar Course
Oxford University Press offers online grammar courses to practise grammar with interactive exercises and games. Choose your level – basic, intermediate, or advanced – to start.
4. The Purdue Online Writing Lab
The Purdue Online Writing Lab offers 200 free resources, such as writing and teaching writing, grammar and mechanics, style guides, English as a second language, and more.
5. Writer’s Digest
For over 90 years, Writer’s Digest has been helping writers improve their skills and hone their craft. It’s an American magazine targeting beginner and established writers, and includes interviews, market listings, and how-to articles. It offers an abundance of content.
Check out the Writer’s Digest University, which provides many online writing workshops to refine your craft.
6. Write to Done
Write to Done is a website dedicated to helping writers learn new skills, refine their craft, and become better writers.
Write to Done covers many genres, including non-fiction, novels, blog posts, and sales pages. Start by visiting their resources for writers.
7. Daily Writing Tips
Daily Writing Tips understands the ability to write well is important, regardless of whether you’re a professional writer or not.
As the name suggests, they publish a new article each day about punctuation, grammar, spelling, language usage, or vocabulary.
8. Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips
Mignon Fogarty launched the educational podcast, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, in 2006.
The podcast was (and is) a huge success, and her site helps people all over the world improve their English writing.
The following quote from their site sums up what Copyblogger is about:
“Since January 2006, Copyblogger has been teaching people how to create killer online content. Not bland corporate crap created to fill up a company webpage. Valuable information that attracts attention, drives traffic, and builds your business.”
PenStars is the world’s first content assessment service. Created by our friends Walter Akolo and Spike Wyatt, PenStars bridges the gap between your content and your clients to make sure everything you write is flawless.
From 1.4¢ per word, PenStars’ expert content editors review your writing and work with you to make improvements. Their service is fast and professional.
This entire guide was professionally assessed by the team at PenStars and we can give them nothing other than five stars for service and quality.
Wrapping it Up
Your freelance writing success hinges on your ability to write well. While on its own it won’t guarantee success, writing well is a crucial piece of the puzzle, and you should always strive to improve your skills.
This guide has covered a lot, from writing for yourself, following a writing process and hiring an editor to reading, learning from the best, and taking advantage of online resources.
There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy, but what I can guarantee is that a concerted effort to improve over time with these techniques will add up to a marked improvement in your quality, the ability to charge more for your writing, and with it, a rise in your earnings.
Are you ready to start improving?
P.S. If you found this guide valuable please share it with your friends.