3 Tips to Improve Your Writing

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3 Tips to Improve Your Writing

It is truly appalling how many people tell me they “aren’t a very good writer.” I think we’d all be better off acknowledging that we can all write but that we can always get better. I studied writing throughout my undergraduate and graduate degrees, plus I do it for a living, and I STILL have a lot to learn.

If you’re really serious about improving your writing, then my best advice is pretty simple—read. Read all the time. Read fiction. Read non-fiction. And for the love of everything good in the world, please, please, please read poetry. Expose yourself to writers who know how to squeeze every ounce of delight out of a word, and steal what you can from them.

However, for those of you looking for dramatic results over night, I do have a few tips that can help you out. Fair warning: this gets super nerdy. I discuss proper terms and everything, but I also provide examples. You’ll be fine. Promise.

  1. Avoid Inherited Language

Inherited language is any phrase that happens to be exceedingly overused. It’s linguistic shorthand that includes clichés (metaphors so tired no one remembers where they came from) and non-metaphorical phrases that we’re all just sick of hearing/reading.

Play it by ear. Wing it. Right off the bat. We use these clichés in everyday language, and they seem innocuous enough, but it’s best to keep them to everyday conversation. When you want to be convincing, compelling, or some other word beginning in C (because alliteration), cut the fluff from your vernacular. Play it by ear and wing it mean “improvise,” so start with that and find a word/phrase that fits your content.

As for the non-metaphorical phrases, we all have our tendencies. When I was teaching English composition to college students, I had to put a moratorium on the phrase, “In today’s society.” I cannot even tell you how many papers began with this exact phrase—which doesn’t even mean anything! (Fun fact: that rhetorical device I just used where I described the frequency of that phrase’s appearance by claiming I couldn’t describe it—it’s a form of occultatio. Cool, right?)

  1. Vary Your Syntax

I can write short sentences. They are good at times. People like short sentences. I like them too. Imagine reading a blog post constructed exclusively of these choppy sentences. Excruciating, isn’t it? Yeah, don’t subject your reader to that.

Syntax is the arrangement of words and phrases to create a sentence. So, what does it mean to vary it? Pretty simple, really. Include both long and short sentences, and put in a good mixture of different structures.

Many people (myself included) like to begin sentences with an introductory clause to sound sophisticated. For example: “If writers want to dazzle the reader with their literary prowess, they must construct several sentences with introductory clauses.” The beginning portion of the sentence gives background information for the rest of the thought. It’s a nice way to add some complexity to your writing, but you definitely don’t want to begin EVERY sentence that way. Moderation, please.

  1. Strong Verbs Rock (rock is a pretty rocking verb)

Verbs are the action in the sentence. Far too frequently, I read sentences riddled with modifiers that try to describe a verb when all the writer had to do was pick the right verb. Why write “He walked clumsily and slowly toward the door,” when you could write “He stumbled toward the door?” (If you’re feeling freaky, you could turn a noun into a verb as in: “He zombied toward the door.” ) The sound in “stumbled” also has the added perk of contrasting with the rhythm of “toward the door,” thus mimicking the action itself!  (Sorry. I went all poetry-nerd there.)

Another tactic for keeping your verbs strong is to make sure they’re active. This just means that the subject of the verb does the actual action itself. For example: “The Panthers beat the Salukis” is active, while “The Salukis were beaten by the Panthers” is passive. There’s a time and place for the passive structure—some say it lends a degree of objectivity to the writer—but most style guides will recommend avoiding it when possible.

Finally, there are nominalizations—the zombies of the word world. A nominalization is a noun that was created from an adjective or a verb. So, if you were to take the word “interfere” and nominalize it, you’d get “interference.” Decide becomes decision. Argue becomes argument. Using the verb itself makes a more powerful sentence. Thus, it’s my recommendation that you avoid nominalizations. Oh, sorry. I mean, I recommend you avoid nominalizations.

Decimating Definitions

Please remember these suggestions are merely guidelines. I often chuckle when my colleagues ask me, “What’s the rule on using a comma in the case of…” or other similar questions. Because the fact is—there are no rules when it comes to the English language. Language evolves. Decimate currently means “destroy a large portion of,” but it originally meant “destroy just one tenth of.”

So, if you really want to improve your writing, the best advice I can give you—is have fun.

…Also, read a book.

Quick Bonus Tips? You Got It!

  • Stop putting two spaces at the end of a sentence. This is a pre-word processor concept. Modern fonts have the spacing figured out for you, so please stop it.
  • Stop it with the comma splices. Commas shouldn’t be used to combine two sentences. I know I said there are no rules, but writing “I like the way the team played last night, they did such a good job” makes your writing seem immature.
  • You are only obligated to use a semi-colon when you’re separating lists of items that contain commas, as in: “Over the summer, I visited Waterloo, Iowa; Phoenix, Arizona; and Madison, Wisconsin.” For everything else, there’s a period and a capital letter or an em dash. (I just really dislike semi-colons. They’re ugly.)