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Seven quick ways to improve your writing

Here at some quick tips about writing in general that will help you keep your copy on track.

1. Know your big idea
Is there a single idea you’re trying to get across? If there is, make a note of it, and use it as a reminder to keep your writing focused.

2. Use active language
People hate passive writing (even if they don’t know it). Passive writing is slow and turgid. It’s also very hard to understand. And people tend to distrust something written in passive language.

  • Active: I kicked the chair
  • Passive: The chair was kicked by me.

3. Use conversational language
Picture your reader and write as if you were talking to them – but imagine you have had chance to prepare what you are going to say so it is logical, clear and grammatical.

Try reading the copy aloud to yourself. If it sounds impersonal or stuffy, rewrite it. Use contractions (don’t, won’t, you’ll etc) and make it personal.

4. Turn off the grammar checker
You need to write with good grammar, of course. I’m not advocating abandoning all rules of proper sentence construction. I’m also not saying people should write with slang. But the grammar checker in Microsoft Word, for example, will upbraid you every time you use a fragment. Why? I like fragments. They’re punchy. To the point. Give rhythm. And pace.

5. Keep it clear, short and to the point
Don’t write very long sentences. Remember that simple words are strong words. Use plain, clear language whenever possible. It’s not a game of scrabble.

6. Vary sentence length
If all your sentences are the same length, your copy will be dull to read. Vary the length of your sentences and remember to read it through with an ear for the rhythm of the prose, not just for meaning and typos.

7. Write short paragraphs
Hey, this one’s easy — and a no-brainer. Look at a newspaper or magazine. Typically, a paragraph is only one sentence, maybe two.

Text is just easier to read that way.

And all you have to do is go through the text and hit the return key after some of the full stops (periods).

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Undrallio April 21, 2008, 2:09 am

    Good tips man, I already do most of these, but I’ve never really noticed if I use active language or not. I write like I talk, but with slightly better grammar.

  • Gregor April 21, 2008, 3:51 am

    Though I do admire attempts to abet others’ writing, I disagree with several of these, at least in a formal context. While these are felicitous rules for casual writing, many of them will not hold up to formal standards; in fact, the third suggestion proclaims itself to be useful only for informal writing.

    As for the others, suggestion two has irritated me for some time: most writing ought to be active, but the passive voice exists for a reason: there are many situations–as when one wants to keep the subject ambiguous; emphasize the recipient of the action; or sustain a subject that sometimes performs, sometimes receives, various actions among rhetorically parallel structures–in which the passive voice can be favorable. Its overuse and misuse are the problems.

    As for turning off the grammar checker, I agree that Microsoft Word’s constant reminders that I’ve done something wrong when I haven’t are vexatious, but you’ve gone to the other extreme. There’s a better way to punctuate than to use a series of sentence fragments; I think the dash would work nicely, or even the ellipsis.

    I agree to an extent with suggestion five, but, again, it’s not a peremptory rule; sometimes, a long sentence is a good thing. Just as a fragment can “give rhythm. And pace,” a long sentence that flows well not only emulates speech in some cases; it is also rhetorically pleasing, and incredibly useful for building good climactic structure and organizing a closely-related idea. Again, this is not something of which the language ought to be expurgated; magniloquence and long sentences are like fats, oils, and sweets: we ought to use them sparingly, but enjoyment of life demands that we indulge on occasion. Suggestion six seems to aver this.

    And a quick note to address number seven: a one-sentence paragraph, in keeping with the trend of these suggestions, is really only acceptable in an e-mail or informal piece of writing. You’re ignoring tone entirely! You’re wiping out the richness of the language!

    All in all, I admire your attempt, but I hope that you and everyone reading this realize that your suggestions are not absolute rules; they are full of provisions, and ought to be broken liberally whenever good writing demands it.