Sometimes a haircut, change of clothes, or even some makeup can drastically improve a person’s appearance. In the same way, a few quick fixes can improve your writing.
If you don’t have a lot of time to revise a piece of writing (maybe you’re finishing an essay at the last minute or writing a business letter under a tight deadline), you will need to make the best of what you have, even if it’s not perfect. After all, no piece of writing is completely finished.
Here are five things you can do to quickly improve a piece of writing:
1. Read your writing out loud. Make sure you read the writing naturally—read it as if you are speaking. Too often, people read text in a monotone, one word after the other without inflection. If you read your writing as speech, you’ll be able to detect incorrect use of punctuation, especially if you have trouble with comma placement. Reading your writing out loud can help you recognize where you pause naturally; each pause point probably deserves a comma.
2. Look at the beginning of each sentence. Do you start every sentence with a pronoun (words like “he,” “she,” or “it”) or subordinate conjunction (words like “although,” “because,” or “before”)? If you notice that you’re using the same pattern again and again, restructure a few of your sentences. Strive for variety: Throw in a few short, punchy sentences and some long, luxurious sentences.
3. Look for and eliminate passive voice. In passive voice, the verb is being done by someone or something. In active voice, someone or something does the verb. More often than not, the active voice sounds more direct and authoritative. Passive voice is not incorrect, but writers should use it sparingly and with good stylistic reason. The easiest way to hunt down passive voice is to look for auxiliary verb forms: is, are, were, have been, and so on, and the word by. When you find them, ask yourself: Can I rewrite this sentence in a more direct way?
4. Break up paragraphs. By doing so, you will immediately increase the readability of your text. Readers are more receptive to writing with plenty of white space. Look for places where you start a new thought. Transition words and phrases like “in addition,” “however,” “finally,” and “therefore” are great clues.
5. Add one memorable image. If you want to make an impression on your reader, add one memorable image to your writing. Push yourself to think of a new way to describe or explain something. Avoid clichés. Think similes, metaphors, and figurative language. By adding a unique image, you will have a better chance of capturing the reader’s attention and demonstrating that you put forth a great deal of effort.
Laryssa Wirstiuk teaches writing and blogging at Rutgers University, and her first book, The Prescribed Burn, is available for purchase at theprescribedburn.com/shop. A version of this article first appeared on CraftYourDrafts.com.