|Written by Lauren Cheal|
|Thursday, 14 April 2011 17:45|
The written word is a mighty powerful tool. In properly-trained and determined hands, the writing can change the world. This is no understatement. In a culture where a large amount of writing takes place in brief, electronic forms (emails, texts, MSN conversations, g chat, tweets, etc.), it is sometimes too easy to pay too little attention to the craft of writing. In an effort to combat this trend, I have compiled this list of the 10 things you can do to make your writing stronger. There are, of course, other methods that can help you improve, and I encourage you to list your best tips in the comments section below.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but editing is absolutely the easiest and most beneficial thing you can do to improve your writing. Giving everything you write a second, third, and maybe fourth look is the only way to make sure it accomplishes what you want it to accomplish. First, check for spelling, grammar, and usage problems. Once these are out of the way, read the sentences and see where you could be clearer. If there is any phrase that you stumble over while reading it, know that your reader is absolutely going to have an issue with it. You wrote the words and know what you were trying to say! If you get caught up in a re-read, it will definitely be an obstacle for your reader. Try to look at your work as an outsider, and make all the improvements you can. For important documents, read it a third and fourth time, and make sure that it is as close to perfect as you can make it. If you can learn to edit your work, you will become more adept at writing well because you will incorporate the changes automatically as you go. Editing strengthens your writing, and it is a great place to start if you are looking to improve your skills.
2. NVR Uz Shrthnd (Never use shorthand)
Writing comes down to habit just as much as anything else. Studying really only takes you so far-practice is what will define your writing style in the long term. As tempting as it might be to use shorthand forms for texts and tweets, I implore you, fight that urge. Phrases (I use the term loosely) like "ur," "2nite," and "thx" are not only hideous, but also represent a lackadaisical attitude towards the written word that will not serve you well in your communication. The rules are there for a reason-follow them, and you ensure your message is clear. Show the world that you know the correct way to write something, and the world will respect you for it.
3. Ask for feedback
It is not always easy to see the flaws or negative tendencies in something you have created. Asking for feedback from a wide variety of sources is a great way to get some perspective on what you do well and what you can improve on. If you are not quite comfortable with throwing your work out to just anyone, start with a few trusted friends. Let them know what you want out of their critique, and let them know what you are not interested in hearing. If you define the terms of their review, you can get the maximum benefit from their time and also protect yourself from an overly harsh dressing-down of your precious work. As you become more comfortable hearing critiques, you might choose to lift the restrictions on what is up for review. Keep in mind that you do not have to change everything someone else tells you to change (in fact, that isn't going to do you any favours at all). The point is to listen to the critique, think about its merits, and decide what you will take from it to strengthen your work. Most people do not freely offer up their thoughts on other people's work, but, if you ask, they are likely to help you improve your writing.
This one seems simple, but having a clear idea of what you want to accomplish through your work goes a long way towards making your words effective tools. Ask yourself, "What do I need to say?" and then, "What is the best way to say it?" If you can answer these two questions, you are well on your way to creating writing that has an impact. Using an outline, lay out the different parts of your piece. Where will it start? Where will it end up? What will be the guts of your argument? What are the things you absolutely must communicate? This outline can take any form that works for you-from a written plan, to a visual representation of how the ideas relate to each other, to anything else you can think of. The form is not important; what matters is that you spend some time setting up your work in a way that will make it easy for you to accomplish your goal.
5. Don't be afraid of punctuation
Punctuation is our friend. Learning how to use it well will undoubtedly strengthen your writing. There are plenty of good writing guides out there that can teach you how to use each punctuation mark. (Cult)ure recommends the Strunk and White classic, The Elements of Style, and I also defer to the gods at MLA. Their Handbook is another great resource. Once you understand the basic rules of punctuation, and become comfortable using different marks (the semicolon, the dash, the ellipsis), you can use punctuation to convey different moods. The semicolon is a great tool for communicating linked ideas; it gives you a way to keep related items together but also gives you a means of keeping them slightly separate. The dash is a great way of abruptly ending one thought-and making a point that the next thought deserves, nay, demands your reader's attention. The ellipsis is one of my favourite tools. It gives you a way of informally pausing . . . giving your sentences a conversational ease that helps communicate your mood. Keep in mind that the ellipsis is better saved for less formal writing styles; there are specific rules that govern its use in academic writing, and these rules should be adhered to.
6. Use parallel sentence structure
This is my one tip that errs on the side of too technical. If you aren't interested, I understand and urge you to move on to Tip 7. Parallel sentence structure might sound daunting, but it is actually a fairly simple thing to do. When you use parallel sentence structure, you just make sure that the elements in each part of your sentence match the elements in every other part. This is particularly useful when making lists. Here is an example of a sentence that needs a fix. "When I go on vacation, I want to ski, eat pie, and sometimes I will read a book." This is a sentence that you could get away with in informal writing, but it is not technically correct. The items in the list are communicated in different tenses and structures, and it is not a strong sentence. A better version would be, "When I go on vacation, I will ski, eat pie, and read books." Here the main clause of the sentence is "I will do x, x, and x." The phrase "I will" is the subject and verb that directs each of the listed actions. I will ski. I will eat pie. I will read books. Keeping all of these actions in the same tense (future) and eliminating the extra "I will" gives us a more succinct sentence and one that flows. There are more ways that parallel structure can help you out, but this is a good start. Balance in your writing will help clarify your point and give you a clean, effortless style.
Writing is a craft, and one way to improve at this craft is to practice. Write for as many different audiences and in as many different media as you can. You may want to improve your writing in the workplace, but any writing you do outside of work will help you improve overall. You will learn to use different tones, different types of sentence structures, and to become comfortable intertwining those new methods into your more traditional writing projects (reports, grants, presentations, or whatever it is you are writing for). If you want to write clear and concise reports, try practicing some clear and concise blogging. Get your point out quickly and craft it in a way that makes an impact. If you want to persuade donors to fund your organization through grants, try persuading someone to try a new restaurant in an email among friends. What is the best way to entice them? What kinds of appeals make the most sense for your goal? A concerted effort to practice your writing will pay dividends by making you a better communicator on the whole.
8. Develop and maintain your voice
Voice is an incredibly important part of writing, and, if you can create a strong one, it will enhance your work at every turn. Voice is a combination of mood, perspective, and style, and it takes time and practice to develop these elements. This is one area of your writing that you should fight for. If an editor makes changes to your work that compromises your voice, it is up to you to defend it. Your voice will dictate what makes your writing yours, and, without it, no one will want to read what you have to say.
Read everything. Read all the time. Read blogs. Read tweets. Read 18th century Russian literature. Look at the way the great writers put together a sentence. How does Henry James get away with paragraph-long sentences? How can Raymond Carver hang the turning point in a man's life on a bowl of stew? I don't know, but it's amazing. Familiarize yourself with the best writing in your genre. If you want to write about TV, read Potes at Television without Pity. If you want to write about cinema, read Pauline Kael. Ask yourself why you love the writers you do, and try to emulate their work. Reading critically will give you insight into many different ways to improve your own writing.
10. Break with convention
Following the rules is essential to strong writing. In many ways, writing is a lot like math in that there are formulas that must be followed to make a coherent sentence. Subject + Verb = Sentence. If you have a firm understanding of what the rules are and how the formulas work, you can start to fiddle with them here and there. To suit your needs. I just used a sentence fragment to create emphasis. Yes, I live on the edge. Great writing takes the conventions and turns them on their ears. It is a fine line to walk, and straying too far from the norm will land you firmly in the land of the incoherent. No one wants to end up there. Ozzy Osbourne is the mayor-elect. Having the confidence (and knowledge base) to play with language and use structures that are technically "incorrect" will make you an engaging and uniquely-styled writer.
I hope that these tips have given you a few ideas about how to improve your writing. The fact that you are interested in reading this article means that you have at least a minimal interest in improving and that is a great first step towards doing so. The written word may just be the key to your immortality—why not make sure that you are doing the very best you can by it?
Tags: correction, editing, good grammar costs nothing, ozzy, punctuation rules, raise your voice, tips, use your complete words, writing