How can I improve my writing as a freelancer?

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July 8, 2021
5 minute read

No matter where you are in your career as a freelance writer, there’s always room for improvement. Whether you're just starting out as a writer or a seasoned veteran, you will always have the opportunity to become a better writer. Not only will improving your writing skills help your business, but there’s also a personal win attached anytime we invest in ourselves. And while you will improve naturally just by doing work for clients, you can be more conscious about it if you really want to improve your writing skills.

In this guide, we’re covering everything you need to know about improving your writing as a freelancer.

What improved writing skills do for you as a freelancer

The ongoing push to improve your writing skills as a freelancer has many tangible benefits, both for you personally and for your business.

Personal benefits

Confidence: The more you improve, the more confidence you’ll bring to your work. This has a great effect for your clients, and also benefits you as a person since you’ll bring that confidence over into other areas of your life.

Freedom: As you hone your craft, you’ll be free to take on any kind of project you want to, whether for a client or something you want to take on out of passion.

Personal fulfillment: If you enjoy writing, improving your craft brings an immense amount of personal fulfillment and joy.

Business benefits

Increased revenue: The higher quality your writing, the more you can charge for your services.

Easier client management: As you strengthen your writing skills, you also inherently strengthen your communication skills. This will make for more concise proposals, emails, and regular client communications.

Increased profitability: As you get stronger in certain types of writing, you’ll also get faster. This means you can get the same job done more quickly, increasing your hourly profit (and this is even before you increase your rates).

What should I focus on when trying to improve my writing skills as a freelancer?

Whether you write blogs, books, or ad copy, there are foundational ways that all freelance writers can improve. Here are seven key areas to watch for:

1. Outlines

Outlining is the secret weapon of efficient, high-quality freelance writers. Not only does an outline help you order your ideas and arguments, but you can also leave yourself notes that will help during the drafting phase. Outlines are also a great way to collaborate with clients, since you can show them a rough outline to get their sign-off on structure and content before spending time drafting. A good outline also helps you overcome writer's block, since you won't be starting from a blank page when you sit down to start writing.

2. Structure

As you create content, think about the multiple layers of a solid structure: content that makes it easy to skim, identify key arguments, and spot more detail if you want. This three-tier system is essential because not all readers want to read every word in detail. Sometimes they just want to get the gist of it (skimming headlines), sometimes they want to understand your key arguments, and sometimes they want in-depth knowledge. This applies to all kinds of writing, whether a blog post, short stories, social media writing, or a how-to guide, or any other kinds of articles.

3. Grammar

Grammar is not just about using the right words in the right order. It’s also about using grammatical devices and language to move your story along. Further, there are moments when you can purposefully “break the rules” of grammar when it serves you. But that only works when you know why you’re breaking rules, and you do it deliberately for effect. Otherwise, you run the risk of your content appearing poor quality.

4. Storytelling

Storytelling is the art of weaving multiple narratives together, leaving nuggets of information and foreshadowing for readers, and personifying characters in the minds of readers. These skills are essential—even in cold, nonfiction writing—because they grip the reader and pull them through your content. Even if someone has to learn what your content explains, a better storytelling experience will make them much happier to engage.

5. Vocabulary

Using the simplest possible explanation for something is a good standard practice, but using the right word to explain a moment is what truly brings a piece of writing to life. For example: are you mad? Or are you infuriated? Livid? Frustrated? Loathsome? Irritated? Annoyed? Angry? Bugged? There are so many different ways to explain anger, each with its own unique nuance that applies subtly to different situations. The more you expand your vocabulary, the more you can pick the right word for the situation.

6. Editing

Editing is the process of taking a draft and polishing it to prepare for publishing. That requires not only a knowledge of editing devices, but also self-awareness to know your weak spots that need attention. This can be a painful process, whether you’re self-editing or working with an editor, but it’s necessary for becoming a better writer.

As you edit, you can also look at different copywriting techniques, technology tools, and creative writing best practices to improve your writing skills.

Self-assessment: 4 ways to identify writing weak spots and improve your writing skills

The problem with writing is not just knowing there’s room for improvement. Instead, it’s identifying your weak spots so you know which writing skills you need to focus on.

1. The summary assessment

What this activity helps with: Ensuring you have a clear grasp on the purpose of your content.

How to do this activity: Have someone else (how has never read this content before), summarize your content by filling in the blanks of this sentence: “This content explains ________ to ________, specifically highlighting ________, ________, and ________.”

Weak point this activity tests: Whether you can write clearly and connect the details to the larger purpose of the content.

2. The high-level assessment

What this activity helps with: Assessing the skim-ability of your content.

How to do this activity: Only read the title and subheadings of your content. Is it clear what arguments you’re making?

Weak point this activity tests: Not all readers will read the whole piece of content. This assesses if your headings are enough to give someone a general understanding of what you discuss in your content.

3. The key points assessment

What this activity helps with: Assessing the structural integrity of your content.

How to do this activity: Only read the first sentence of each paragraph (for an article) or the first sentence after a line break (for social media posts or emails). Do you understand what the content is saying or arguing?

Weak point this activity tests: How well your content is structured in terms of presenting your arguments or main statements.

4. The out-loud assessment

What this activity helps with: The finer points of grammar, syntax, word order, and sentence structure.

How to do this activity: Read your content out loud, consciously following the editorial guidelines you’ve set with your word choice, punctuation, and added emphasis. Does it flow naturally?

Weak point this activity tests: If your language, grammar, and word choice makes sense and flows for your reader.

15 ways to improve your writing skills

Wondering how to improve your writing skills as a freelancer? The key is to think like a student, being open to learning a new writing style, and doing a variety of writing tasks. Here are 15 different ways you can build up your writing skills:

1. Read more

Main goal: Learn passively from other writers to hone your writing skill.

One of the best ways to improve your writing skills is to read other people’s work. You’ll learn what you like, what you don’t, and get better at identifying bad writing. Further, you will pick up tips, tricks, and ways of writing something that you can put into your writing in the future.

2. Take a writing or editing course

Main goal: Learn in a structured way, from professionals, to help you become a better writer faster than if you did it by yourself.

If you're asking yourself "How can I improve my writing skills?" consider taking a course to learn from professional writers. Courses, whether online and self-paced or synchronous taught via a university or college, are great ways to hone your writing skills and become a better writer.

In a writing course, you can learn specific styles or try new things with your craft. In an editing course, you train your eye (and mind) to spot improvement areas that you might have missed otherwise.

If your current budget is too tight to take a course, there are also writing podcasts that can provide you tips and tricks on improving your skills.

3. Try a different style of writing

Main goal: Get out of your own head and try something new.

A big part of writer’s block or getting stale as a writer is never expanding your repertoire. It’s the blogger who never writes anything but blogs or the comic book writer that never writes anything but comics. Sure, you might spend a majority of your time on one type of writing (especially if you’re getting paid by clients to do that work), but if you want to get better at writing, you need to try new things. You could stay within the same structure (for example: article writing), but try different formats like interviews, long form articles, fiction short story articles, and more.

4. Do the Twitter thread test

Main goal: Learn to distill your writing into its key points.

Twitter can be a great tool for writers. Here’s how it works: Take any longer piece of writing you have—an article, a blog post, or even a book—and try to encapsulate one section in one tweet. You’ll be condensing hundreds of words into 280 characters, which forces you to think very deeply about the key points in your work.

This doesn’t work for all writing, especially when you have to explain a concept using complex details, but it’s a good exercise to distill your ideas down to their essential elements.

5. Only do one thing at a time

Main goal: Gain efficiency in your writing by focusing on your tasks one at a time.

A lot of writers make the mistake of trying to do it all at once. They will conduct research and outline at the same time. Or they will try to edit their draft as they are writing. Don’t make this mistake! When you try to do multiple things at once, two things happen:

  1. You waste time
  2. Your work quality suffers

Instead, focus exclusively on one thing at a time and you’ll open up opportunities to gain efficiency, try new things, or just deliver a higher quality outcome in the end.

6. Always come back to your reader and your purpose

Main goal: Make it easy to identify irrelevant content that you can cut or edit as a freelance writer.

When freelance writing, it's critical to keep your promise to the reader. That might be to educate them, to entertain them, to make them laugh, or something else. But every piece of writing has a purpose. If you want to improve your writing, think more about your reader and what you’ve promised to them.

For instance, if you’re writing a blog post about “10 things to keep in mind at tax time,” then you should only focus on those 10 things. If you start veering off into real estate investing, that might be interesting insight but it’s out of scope for the promise you made.

The more promises you keep, the better your writing is. And if you realize you’re making too many promises (for instance: you can’t explain everything there is to know about investing in 500 words), then you can adjust your scope to make sure you’re able to deliver what you claim.

7. Create a daily writing habit

Main goal: Get better through practice and developing a writer’s mindset.

As a freelance writer, a huge part of improving at anything is simply doing it. That’s what this tip is all about. If you write every day—regardless of topic—you will find incremental improvements to your writing ability.

Setting up this habit looks like this:

Step 1: Pick a time each day. This should ideally be the first thing you do, so your brain is fresh, but it can be any time.

Step 2: Set a time limit. A daily habit can be anywhere from 5 minutes to 5 hours, depending on what you are able to stick to. Don’t worry about how long it is, just pick the longest amount of time you know you can commit to.

Step 3: Write! About anything. Your day, your mood, your work. Or you can even start to do client work if you want. This time is about actually writing, not necessarily what you write about.

8. Leverage technology

Main goal: Let technology be your tutor to help you improve your writing skill.

There are so many content optimization tools on the market today: Hemingway Editor (named after famous writer Ernest Hemingway), Grammarly, Postpace, Surfer, Clearscope, Use Topic, and more. These tools were initially built to help businesses with content marketing, and you can definitely use them that way. But you can also leverage them as your digital writing tutors, letting the platforms make suggestions for text to insert, words to use, or other tips that help you improve your writing skills as a freelance writer.

Here’s how it works: Use the tools, but think about the reason behind the suggestion. For instance, if Grammarly tells you to change a word from “than” to “from,” think about the context of the sentence. Both phrases can be comparative (“Better than this” “Better from before”), but depending on the context, one word fits better than the other. If you think more deeply about the reason behind the change, not just the change itself, these technologies can help you improve your writing significantly.

9. Talk it out first

Main goal: Bring your idea into reality by speaking it versus writing or thinking in the abstract.

When freelance writing, it’s easy for your fingers to get carried away. Your brain is humming along and your fingers just do their thing, clacking at the keyboard. Then you read the sentence back and it makes no sense. In these cases, one of the best things you can do in this case is to put your thoughts into words. That way, you can hear how they sound together and if the words seem to make sense to your ears, not just your imaginative mind.

Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Talk with an accountability buddy or fellow writer
  • Talk to yourself
  • Record a voice note
  • Talk to an inanimate object (in tech, this is famously known as “rubber duck debugging”)

10. Let feedback guide your questions

Main goal: Learn context so you can pick up a deeper lesson, not just fix a mistake.

When you get specific changes or feedback from an editor or client while freelance writing, ask why they made that suggested change. Make sure to pose your question in a more open ended way, asking for context around the change instead of just “did you change this because of X reason?”

If you don’t have a communicative client or you’re worried about appearing stupid, google the change instead. For instance, you can google “why use “more” instead of “bigger ``. It might seem like a weird question, but you will stumble onto hundreds of articles that explain the etymology of words and why they fit better in different contexts.

11. Read translated works

Main goal: Get better at picking out common grammatical mistakes so you can avoid them yourself as a writer or author.

English has very weird grammar rules that are taken from a variety of languages: Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, and more. But while we may not consciously know every grammar rule, we can often feel when something is off.

A very common example of this is the order of adjectives in a sentence. It’s supposed to go: Opinion, size, physical quantity, shape, age, color, origin, material, type, purpose. Other languages use different orders. Most English speakers don’t know this consciously, but they know when it’s done wrong.

Reading translated works often appears wrong in English because it’s using another language’s grammar rules. When you read translated works, you pull up all the things you can feel, even if you don’t consciously know them.

12. Confirm your foreshadows

Main goal: Ensure your story flows naturally.

A lot of “bad” writing is when the reader is thrown a wildly unexpected twist that was not planted or foreshadowed before. For example: an article about space exploration that suddenly throws in a fact about the Mayan people (who lived well before space travel was even a concept). Now, it’s possible that the modern space travel ecosystem was helped out by Mayan star charts. But if you don’t hint at that in the beginning of your article, it will seem very odd when you bring it up later on.

Writers want to put drama, spins, or big reveals in their articles. This is great, and usually makes for a more enticing piece of content. However, you need to confirm that you’ve foreshadowed the big reveal so you don’t jar your reader just as you have them hooked and waiting for more.

13. Be afraid of tautology

Main goal: Make you a more self-aware reader.

When writing (and editing), check every single conclusion you make to ensure you’ve explained it or provided relevant evidence to support it. While you don’t need to worry as much for commonly understood truths, be careful about making broad statements about huge swaths of people or circumstances.

If you have broad conclusory statements in your writing, you have two options:

  1. Make sure they are fully explained with evidence
  2. Focus your conclusion down to its true point (removing broadness and getting specific)

If you’re pulling a conclusion into your content that is part of your argument, but not your central thesis, then you can cite someone else who already made a thorough and reasoned argument for that conclusion, either naming them or hyperlinking to their content.

14. Find a reciprocal editing partner

Main goal: Learn someone else’s style, learn by teaching, and have another set of eyes on your work.

One of the best ways to improve your writing is to work with a reciprocal editing partner. Find another author or writer you can partner with where you both edit each other’s work. You could also consider hiring a mentor who knows the elements of style for your type of writing. This can be especially helpful for beginner writers that want to improve writing skills quickly.

With this method, you have to explain your edits to your partner, which helps you learn and solidify your own perspectives. Then you get the same treatment in return, which means you benefit from your partner’s expertise and insight.

15. Read young adult content

Main goal: Learn how successful authors and writers explain complex topics in simplistic ways.

Young adult (YA) content—both fiction and nonfiction—does a great job at breaking down complex topics into their essential elements. While you might need to add that complexity back into your content, you can learn a lot from YA content about how to use simple words to explain difficult subject matter.

When you’re reading, pay attention explicitly to the use of metaphor, simile, allegory, and comparison. This is a common plot device in YA, since it’s easier to use well-known stories to explain concepts than to explain them outright. It’s a device you can bring into your writing as well, since people value simple explanations, even highly intelligent people who understand complexity.

Improvement is an ongoing task

There is no such thing as a perfect writer. Even Pulitzer prize winners and millionaire bestselling authors have room for improvement. So there’s no shame in noticing that you need to improve then spending time on your craft. The only shame would be assuming you never need to improve.