5 things you must do be a better freelance writer & 5 things that don’t matter

I have spent most of today editing other writers’ writing. Sometimes I find this fun – editing and proofreading can be like going on a treasure hunt – it’s satisfying when you find a wee error or spelling that falls outside the intended website’s  spelling conventions. Yes – we use ‘s’ here in Australia more than ‘z’. The Brits do this too – but you know that, right?

Let’s get organised. Or if you’re in the US of A – I can help you organize your writing.

Today I read articles (all non-fiction) from freelancers, male and female, young and mature, UK, US and Australia-based. It’s my job now to check the quality of the writing, to make sure the content is valuable for the reader and to help improve the text.

Anyone can learn to write. I have some university professor friends who dispute this. They say a writer is born, not made. Not so, in my opinion. Anyone can learn the basic functions of writing well. Practice makes perfect. The more you write, the more you read and the more you edit other people’s stuff – the better you get at spotting good or shoddy text.

But not everything is important. Rules are there to be broken and language is not a set science – it is an evolving thing. Rules that were relevant five years ago are no longer important. Words are created every single year. Other words fall out of fashion or their meaning changes.

Often I will get a question from a colleague and they want a firm answer. Sadly in English, there is often no firm answer. However, to be a truly good writer you need to know the rules, so you can break the rules. Here are my suggestions on what is important and what isn’t.

Let me know your thoughts.

5 writing skills that do matter

#1: Spelling conventions

As I mentioned – there are many ways to write correctly for English speakers. In my experience, people in the UK and Australia get very upset when they are told to analyze something instead of analyse it. Equally, and American reader would be quite bothered if someone was practising the violin next to them and not practicing it. You need to get this right or it will make you look like a shoddy writer. If writing for the web for a general audience, US spelling conventions are normally favoured (or in this case favored).

#2: Using evidence

So many freelancers out there write without any evidence or quotes at all. That’s fine for blogging, but if you’re submitting articles to websites and other publications, it’s important to do your research and back up your statements with quotes from experts, statistics and attributable facts. That’s what good writers do. Lazy writers just scan the web and re-hash. It always pays to get fresh quotes when you can. Do the work, especially if you’re being paid to write.

3#: Correct citation and attributed quotes

If you quote text or a person, you need to make this clear. Conventions differ, so do what is suggested for your type of publication. Never pass off someone else’s words as your own, and link to websites when you can (if appropriate) so the reader can go off and do their own research.

#4: Formatting

Readers judge how easy your article will be to read before they start reading it. Take this blog for example – my font totally sucks (as of October 2014) and I need to change it because it’s difficult to read and therefore affecting engagement of my posts. You need to make your paragraphs the right length, your text clear (please double space when submitting!) and use a common font. Here are some tips on formatting for readability. They’re about email but they relate well to writing for the web.

#5: Thinking about your audience

Who are you writing for? Really sit down and think about them, because your article is not about you, but them. A good writer uses short sentences, is succinct, uses plain English and gets to the point – while still maintaining clarity, a sense of personality and individuality. Read everything back to yourself the next day. Check your writing on different screens (tablet, smartphone and desktop) and see how different it may look.

5 writing skills that don’t matter

#1: Knowing all the rules

It’s OK. You can Google. I do it all day. Not sure if you should capitalise winter? Can’t remember the practise/practice rule? Not sure if you’re standing by a principle or principal? These days it’s easy to find the answers to these questions with a few key strokes. Always check two or three reliable sources.

#2: General spelling

Apart from international spelling conventions, Word should do lots of the work for you. However, if you’re a bad typist like me, you need to be careful. In one of my first jobs, I was tasked with writing a press release. I put the word ‘manger’ in there about seven times instead of ‘manager’. “Why didn’t you spellcheck it?” my direct report wanted to know. I quietly pointed out to her that manger is also a word, just not the one I was intending to use! Same with juts instead of just.

#3: Too many keywords

SEO – I love it but it should not be the be-all and end-all of your work. Yes, include keywords, yes think of your headings, yes do your research. But don’t make this the main focus of your piece. Focus instead on creating awesome content that is clear, fresh, informative, and provides value. Google is getting even better at recognising this type of content.

#4: Old-fashioned rules you learned in school

Capitalising every word in headings, not using ‘but’ at the start of a sentence, giving a capital to ‘internet’, capitalising job titles…all these things are falling out of fashion. But the main thing to note is to match the tone and style of the publication you are writing for. Do what they do and make your editor smile.

#5: Using big words

You do not have to have an amazing vocabulary to be a great writer. Truly great writers create content that is accessible and easily digested by their audience. Most editors can tell if someone is trying to sound more important than they are, or is being too verbose. Use short sentences, start a new sentence with every new thought if possible. Avoid lengthy lists in text and don’t try to use words that you or your readers will struggle with.

You can learn to be a great freelance writer

Since the world wide web launched, copywriting has exploded in popularity as a freelance profession. Now more than ever, people are searching for great writers to make their sites, products and programs interesting to their markets. Keep working on your stuff, use decent resources and ask plenty of questions.

Do you have a question for me? Please ask it below!

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