Writing can seem hard, especially when you have a deadline to reach or a word count to fill. Whether you’re writing an academic essay, a short story or an article, keeping to this five-step guide could really help you improve. These are:

  1. Read and research the topic area
  2. Plan plan plan
  3. Have a consistent style
  4. Just write it!
  5. Edit a day later

So, if you’re struggling to get some words on paper, or you just want to become a more accomplished writer, this article is for you.

1. Read and research the topic area

Reading is essential to becoming a good writer. When you read someone else’s writing, notice what sounds good, how the structure has helped convey the message, and, if it is on the same topic as your piece, what ideas particularly grabbed your attention.

Read pieces that are similar to the one that you are going to write. This gives you a good idea of the style that people expect when reading your piece.

Most of all, make sure to research your topic area. When researching:

  • Make a list of the points you’d like to cover in your topic and stick to them when searching for articles.
  • Bookmark, clip or write down relevant articles when you find them so that you can return to them when you need to.
  • Make notes of the key points to help you remember what the article was about.
  • Record relevant quotes that you may want to include in your piece. Remember to make a note of which article they were from for reference.

Sticking to these will make you an efficient reader and help you when it comes to writing your piece. Remember, a good writer is a good reader.

2. Plan plan plan

Making a plan for how you are going to structure your piece before you start writing is essential. A good piece of writing has a clear and easy-to-follow structure that will not leave your readers scratching their heads.

A good plan will contain the main points that you want to cover in a logical order along with any quotes you wish to include from your research.

Write out the points you want to cover at the start of your plan. These can form the basis of each section of your plan. Under each section, write down the point, then a piece of evidence to back it up. (This can be a quote from your research).

Look at the sections of your plan and work out which order they should go in. You can then number each section in the order which they’ll appear in your piece.

Most importantly, don’t forget about your plan once you start writing. Keep referring back to it so you don’t go off on a tangent.

3. Have a consistent style

The style of your writing communicates its intention to the reader. An article with a conversational style can make the reader feel like they are talking to a friend. A formal style could show your reader that you need to be taken seriously and that you have researched your work. Match the style of your writing to the content of your piece.

A good way of making sure your style is consistent is to:

  • Use the correct pronouns. In casual pieces such as a blog post, you might be referring to your own experience or addressing the reader directly. Using ‘you’ and ‘I’ is fine. For academic writing, you will be using the third person and passive constructions instead.
  • Use a paragraph structure that suits the content. In an online piece, the paragraphs should be short and snappy. Paragraphs in academic essays will obviously be longer.
  • Make sure your sources are of the right calibre. Academic essays should have academic sources. Don’t reference Wikipedia.
  • Be concise. No matter what kind of article you’re writing, the most engaging pieces stay on point.

Most of all, make sure that if you start with one kind of style, you keep that style until the very last word. You should not start casually addressing the audience only to end up referring to yourself as ‘one’.

4. Just write it!

Unsurprisingly, the biggest problem you may face when beginning a piece is actually getting down to the task at hand. We have all had a deadline bearing down on us only to get distracted by mundane, but easy to complete tasks, such as cleaning or tidying our desks.

The best way to overcome the urge to procrastinate is to just put a few words on the paper. A blank piece of paper is intimidating, so having a few choice words could give your piece boost. If you’ve crafted a good plan this shouldn’t be too difficult. Write the names of the sections of your plan as subheadings and it should be easy to start getting the words down on paper.

Trying to make every sentence perfect can get in the way of achieving fluency. You can always come back to edit your work but you might find it hard to structure your arguments or get all your thoughts on paper if you are being critical of every phrase as you write. The plan you wrote should help you keep on track, so try to focus on that.

If you’re really struggling to get started then this article by Forbes provides you with 7 strategies to stop procrastinating.

5. Edit a day later

Editing and proofreading are vital to ensuring your writing is polished and well-structured. Although it may be tempting to edit straightaway so that your piece can just be finished, it is best to wait a day. Reading your piece with a fresh mind can help you put yourself in the place of your reader.

Start with editing, looking at structure and flow.

Ask yourself:

  1. Do the sections link together in a logical way?
  2. Do I signpost my structure so that it is clear how one idea follows the next?
  3. Does this word/sentence back up the main point of this section? If no, then they may be unnecessary or irrelevant.

Next, you need to make sure your piece is within the word count. This could mean deleting words or adding more as needed. This can be the most difficult part of editing; how do you decide which words are unnecessary when you’ve spent so much time on them? Sometimes you just have to be ruthless!

Ask yourself: “Does my piece still make sense without this word/sentence?” If yes, then you should consider cutting them.

Once you are happy with your writing, it is time for the final check: the proofread. You are checking for spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes. At this point, the best thing to do is to print out your piece and read it through on paper.

When you read a printed copy, your eyes can pick out mistakes they may have missed on screen. Keep a highlighter and pen ready so you can note any mistakes. Remember that although automated spelling and grammar checks can be useful tools, they can miss mistakes and misinterpret the meaning. A final, offline check is still important.

So, every time you sit down to do a new piece of writing, remember these 5 simple steps and writing will get easier.