Becoming a better writer takes practice. Improving your skills requires you to be aware of what you can do to give your text more structure, make it crisp and readable, and flow with a friendly style. Following are some ideas you can use to improve the quality of your writing.
Make sure your writing has structure
Effective communication requires that you organize your thoughts in a meaningful structure. Following are some suggestions for how to do that.
- Be sure you understand what you’re writing about—Before you start to write, ask yourself what your purpose or goal is. What do you want to accomplish? Make a note of it. Stick to it. But be flexible if that makes the work better.
- Create an outline—Unless you’re writing something simple, creating an outline gives you a chance to organize your thoughts and the progression of your text. For an idea of how to do it, look at the table of contents in any books in the “For Dummies” series.
- Don’t overwhelm readers—Effective communication involves efficient writing. In other words, keep it simple. Provide readers with just enough information to understand what you’re trying to say, without burying them in unnecessary details or sidetracks.
Writing tends to be more formal than speaking. And while it may be okay to ramble on in talking with someone, it should be avoided in writing. It makes your text hard to read, and it can make you sound as though you lack conviction. Start practicing the following skills to streamline your writing.
- Avoid using too many prepositional phrases—A prepositional phrase is a group of words that contains a preposition and its object (e.g., She arrived on time.). Modifiers can be added to these two basic elements (e.g., She arrived barely on time.). Too many prepositional phrases can muddy the action of a sentence. Here’s a famous example:
Why was the road crossed by the chicken?
It’s better to use an active voice:
Why did the chicken cross the road?
Fewer words. More direct communication.
Rule of thumb: If there’s more than one preposition for every 10-15 words in your writing, change some of your sentences. It will make your writing more efficient and pleasant.
- Remove filler words and phrases—Words often appear in writing that don’t contribute much. These are called filler words and phrases. They may add color or even meaning, but most of the time, they add nothing. And they create writing clutter. Here are some examples, shown with the filler words first, followed by a better choice in parentheses: all of the (all the); due to the fact that (because); has the ability to (can); in spite of the fact that (despite or although); in the event that (if).
- Don’t overuse adverbs—Since adverbs are used to modify or describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs, it’s easy to overuse them. You can recognize many adverbs, because they often end in -ly. Here are a couple of examples:
John yelled loudly at the waitress!
She quietly whispered her apology.
The word yell contains the idea of a “loud vocalization”, and the word whispered contains the idea of “talking quietly”. So, both of these adverbs are unnecessary.
Talk to your readers, not at them
Most writing is designed to talk to a group of readers. However, it’s usually not meant to sound like a lecture. Here are some ideas for talking to your readers.
- Use simple, easy-to-read words—If your readers have to stop to figure out what a word means, how to pronounce it, or look it up in a dictionary, or they stumble over the length, you’ve failed to do your number-one job—communicate effectively. Unless you’re writing something very technical for a peer audience, keep your writing simple and direct.
- It’s okay to use contractions—It seems that when some authors sit down in front of a keyboard, they forget how they speak. They type in writer-ese. Almost no one speaks without using listener-friendly contractions (e.g., I’m, you’re, we’re, they’re, can’t, didn’t, won’t). If you avoid using contractions, your writing will sound stiff and formal. So, while you may want to avoid “ain’t” and the like, remember that you’re talking with your audience in a friendly way, even if you’re giving advice.
- It’s okay to occasionally break grammar rules—Unless you’re writing something formal, keep in mind that you’re talking to your readers not at them. So, write naturally. It’s okay to sometimes start a sentence with a conjunction or end a sentence with a preposition. But don’t get carried away.
- Keep your sentences simple—In today’s world, communication tends to be delivered in sound-bites. The days of writing “deathless prose” are long gone. So, write short, simple, punchy sentences that are easy to read. But don’t make it sound like a machine gun. Vary your sentence length to create a nice rhythm and flow.
These are a few ideas for how to improve your writing. Use them to review something you’ve recently written, or use them as a guide during your next writing session. And remember: The more you write, edit, and proofread, the better you get at it.
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