Header photo by Hamish Grant. Used with permission.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Nine Ways to Start Writing Better Today

Writing is tricky.  Writing effectively is even more so. In university I developed a propensity for long-windedness and unnecessary verbosity, which ultimately impeded readers from grasping the key postulations of my compositions. I was wordy.  I was unclear.

(Did you get as far as "propensity" and start skimming?)

I've since learned that good writing is easy reading.  If you're writing to be understood, be clear and be concise.

These are a few tips for better writing that writing instructor Kalene Morgan passed along.  I've found them extremely useful, thought I must admit I don't always follow them all the time (and deserve appropriate scolding for it).

1. Use shorter sentences
As a rule of thumb, aim to keep sentences shorter than two full lines, or about 20 words. Writing shorter sentences ensures that each sentence has just one idea.  This keeps things simple and readable.

2. Vary sentence length
Varying the sentence length keeps the reader engaged and enhances the rhythm of your work by building suspense and adding variety. It works, if done judiciously.

3. Avoid ugly words
This one boils down to personal preference, and can be subjective. Many words are thrown around a lot, but don't mean much. Get rid of them.  Consider finding better words than: great, nice, astounding, amazing, terrific, exciting and tragic.  What would you add (or delete) from the list?

4. Use strong verbs
Strong verbs evoke feeling. They command attention. They describe with precision.  Using strong verbs transforms your writing and enhances clarity and readability.

5. Write in the active voice
In the active voice, the doer is doing the do-ee.  It happens in that order: subject, (strong) verb, object.  Sentences written in the active voice are stronger and easier to understand.  The understanding of a sentence is made more difficult when written passively.  See what I mean?

6. Use the shortest form of the word
This is a big one.  I'm most guilty of this in emails.  The trick is to simply avoid wordy phrases.  Instead of: This blog post expressed opposition to questionable writing practices; consider: This blog post opposed questionable writing practices.

7. Avoid jargon and acronyms
Terms, words and expressions commonly used in your workplace or industry should not be taken for granted.  All academics know that RA stands for "research assistant," unless of course you live on campus, in which case you're a "resident advisor." Of course you could also be referring to "rheumatoid arthritis." If you're writing to be understood, write to be understood by your grandma, not only other engineers.

8. Avoid cliches, redundancies and overworked expressions
An exact duplicate?  Due to the fact that ...?  As far as I can remember?  Each and every?  Completely eliminate? At the present moment?  Giving 110 per cent?  At the end of the day?  Comon!  We can do better, I promise!

9. Be careful around the verb "to be"
When you proofread your work, highlight every instance of is, are, was, were, be and being.  Can you replace them with a stronger verb?  If so, do!

What other tips do you think should be added  to the list?


  1. This post is my Professional Writing & Communications degree wrapped up into one neat little bow.

  2. I'll take that as a compliment - that you're happy to see that I've been able to summarize some of the keys to better writing. Unless you meant it say that I've cheapened years of education by condensing them into a single blog post ...