10 secrets of professional writers

The harder people try to write well, the worse their writing usually becomes. Here are some simple tips to follow.

We all know good writing when we see it, and we cringe when we see terrible writing.

Here are 10 secrets of professional writers to help improve your writing.

1. Avoid clichés

You know that, don’t you? Yet clichés are more invasive then people imagine. A cliché is any idea or expression that has lost its force through overuse, to the point where it becomes meaningless and drab.

Here are some examples that I have found in recent blogs:

  • In this day and age
  • Never a dull moment
  • Given the green light
  • Rose to great heights
  • Calm before the storm

The problem with—and the attraction to—clichés is that they seem to say exactly what we want to say, so it is tempting to hang on to these banal expressions.

Yet, they will deaden your prose, make readers mentally sign off, and expose you as an amateur—every time.

So, avoid overused sayings (yes, I know, like the plague).

2. Write the way you speak

Use a conversational tone. Really. And you don’t have to use complete sentences, either.

Think of it this way; if you wouldn’t say it a casual conversation, think twice before you write it. A blog is a friendly chat that will inform and entertain your audience. It is not a lecture, an academic thesis, or the opportunity to harangue your readers from your soapbox.

3. Talk to your reader like a friend

In real life you would use the words “you” and “I,” so use them in your blog, too, just as you would if you were chatting at a barbecue. This lesson comes hard to those who have spent a lot of time in academic writing (in fact, most good writing lessons come hard to this group), but good writers love using “you” and “I” these days because they speak directly to the reader.

4. Use anecdotes and case studies

These little stories are the spice of a blog. Facts only go so far, and no one wants to read too many of them. People like stories about people, and anecdotes humanize your information and make the reader care about the issue.

5. Parallelism

This sounds technical, but it just means a balance within sentences that have the same grammatical structure. Before you skip to the next point, consider that-according to Wikipedia-using parallelism improves writing style and readability and makes sentences easier to process.

This is a typical example that I found in a blog.

James likes to play soccer and hockey. He also likes to play a bit of tennis too.”

It reads better to say:

James enjoys soccer, hockey and tennis .

6. Getting down and dirty

Use adjectives sparingly.

When I ask my Gen Y students how they recognize good writing they often look perplexed (but then again, they tend to look perplexed most of the time). Finally a tentative hand will go up, and a brave student will suggest that good writing is “descriptive.” By descriptive, they mean lots of describing words—or adjectives.

A lot of people believe this.

In a harsh kink of fate, this leads to exactly the worst kind of writing-the dreaded flowery prose.

Mark Twain said it best: “When you see an adjective, kill it.”

This is what he actually said in a letter to D.W Bowser dated March 20, 1880:

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words, and brief sentences. …. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.

7. But there’s more

There is another part of speech that will make your readers want to put their head in a vise-the dreaded adverb. In his acclaimed book, “On Writing,” novelist Stephen King describes the road to hell as being “paved with adverbs.”

Adverbs clutter your sentences and are a pitiable substitute for good writing.

To put it simply, adverbs prop up poor verbs. Considering that verbs are the V8 engine of your sentence, using weak, nonspecific ones means you need an adverb to help it along, a bit like a Zimmer frame, which is not a good look.

The famous example from every writing text is:

The man walked wearily and laboriously up the hill

The better way to write it is:

The man trudged up the hill

So, for example use the better verb “skulked,” instead of a phrase such as “moved suspiciously.” Think about using phrases such as “teased mercilessly” when you could use “taunted,” or “ran quickly” when you could use “dashed” or “sprinted.”

You get the point. Use specific verbs and nouns, and use adverbs and adjectives sparingly. It sounds technical, but with a small amount of thought you will supercharge your sentences and make your writing a pleasure to read.

8. Exclamation marks!

OMG! I know I don’t need to tell you this, but exclamation marks can give your writing a gushing, effusive quality! They are mostly used ironically these days so unless you are an enthusiastic teenager, use with care.

9. Tighten up

Make your writing tighter and more powerful by removing the extra words and phrases that don’t contribute to the meaning of your sentence. Look at your sentence; can you remove some words to make it more succinct? Less is better. Always.

10. Rant or reason?

If you want people to take you seriously, develop evidence-based opinions. Why do you think as you do? Try to be able to back up your opinions with facts, research, or statistics. Otherwise you may as well just get on a soapbox at the local park and rant.

Margaret Pincus works in digital communications and teaches writing/journalism at Griffith University. She blogs at bloghappy.com.au. A version of this article first appeared on JeffBullas.com.

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