Most people have experienced the crushing feeling of receiving a piece of writing back from a teacher with a lower-than-expected grade on it. It is a sinking and frustrating feeling.
Even for folks no longer in school, the indelible impression remains even years later. And with every report you write and every important e-mail you send, it gnaws at you… I hope it sounds ok, you meekly tell yourself, frustrated by this skill which is rated so subjectively.
No matter how perfect your spelling, punctuation, and grammar are, your writing is, you admit, missing something. You might include the same information as another student or a business competitor, but their writing is better: it’s more clear, more readable, and, therefore, they have presented themselves in a more favorable light. What can you do to improve your writing?
There are, thankfully, some quantitative things about good writing-it’s not all so subjective.
Here are some tips any regular Joe can implement to immediately improve his or her writing:
1. Sentence Variety
First of all, don’t abandon the short sentence. Three to five-word sentences pack a lot of punch. They’re dramatic, and they make a reader pause for a moment. If you have a point to make, end it with a short, powerful sentence.
Second, there should be some-not a crazy amount, but some-variety in the lengths of your sentences. Go ahead and count the words in your sentences. I bet that most of your sentences are within five or six words of each other in the amount of words they contain. Once in a while bust a long one. Once in a while go short. Sure, most sentences will be medium-to-long in length, but you have to have some exceptions in there. This is what your teacher meant when she said, “Write the way you speak.” Only robots use the same length sentences over and over again.
For those of you who remember something about grammar, a third thing to consider regarding sentence variety would be to look at how you begin your sentences. Does every sentence begin with the subject and follow with the verb? Why not begin with a prepositional phrase (after the meeting, in the hallway, near 23rd Street, etc.)? You might also begin with an “-ing” word once in a while (gerunds and participles), like “Having sentence variety is very important…” or “Pushing the limits of his car, Jeffrey throttled the engine and whipped around the final bend.”
2. Word Choice
First, “good word choice” does NOT mean using impressive words few people understand. Good word choice simply means avoiding overused words and employing some under-used ones. For instance, instead of “laughed,” one might use “snickered” or “guffawed.” Instead of “hit,” one might say “slugged” or “belted.” Instead of “traveled,” one might use “jetted” or “journeyed.” Instead of “walked,” one might say “strolled” or “trekked.”
Second, a big focus of word choice has to do with one’s choice of verbs. Verbs in the “to be” family are WAY overused, verbs like is, was, were, am, are, been, be, being, etc. The “to be” family of verbs is very necessary to the English language and so one should not feel the need to avoid them altogether, but their use should be restricted when it’s reasonably easy to do so.
There are other verbs that should be avoided at all costs, like get, gets, got, and gotten (not a word!).
Third, don’t ever try to sound impressive-say what you mean in the clearest terms possible. Don’t say “Enlighten me on the sum of your research and deliberations.” Instead say, “Tell me what you think.” Clarity is king!
3. About Clichés
Here are some clichés: “hit the nail on the head,” “when it rains it pours,” “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” etc. Clichés draw attention away from what you are trying to communicate. Readers see clichés and roll their eyes. Writing that is full of clichés has no power because clichés are so over used that readers are just about numb to their meaning. Clichés are simply lame and boorish-two words you never want to be associated with you!
4. Your Tone of Voice
If any degree of formality is called for, do not use contractions (use “is” instead of “isn’t,” etc.) and stay away from pronouns that refer to yourself, such as “I” and “me.” Try to avoid the pronoun “you” as well.
5. Comma Usage
Never over-use commas. If you don’t know much about grammar, a good rule of thumb is to only use commas when you must in order to avoid confusion.
Let’s face it, folks, what we’re talking about here is style-the computer will pretty much do the punctuation and mechanics for you, and so it’s these very simple stylistic strategies that can set you apart from your peers.
Employing even just a few of these tips will go a long way toward improving your writing; and they’re so simple that your writing will improve with the very next piece of writing you do. Best of luck!!