Straightforward techniques to improve your writing

Your goal is to get your message across as clearly as you can. Put these practical tips to work today.

Whatever you write, you want to get your thoughts across as clearly and effectively as possible.

If you’re a novelist, you don’t want awkward word choices or repetitive sentence structures to distract your readers from the story.

If you’re a freelancer, you don’t want your work to seem sloppy or poorly edited.

If you’re a blogger, you don’t want readers to switch off because you’re too wordy.

The good news? If your writing isn’t as strong as you’d like, there are plenty of straightforward techniques you can use to improve it:

1. Cut unnecessary words

Here are two paragraphs that say the same thing. Which one is stronger?

In my opinion, the majority of freelancers should probably avoid working for free (or for a nominal sum) unless they are at a very early stage of their career and as yet have no pieces for their portfolio at all.

Freelancers shouldn’t work for free unless they’re just starting out and don’t have any pieces for their portfolio.

The second clearly states a stronger case.

If you’re writing a blog post, most readers will assume that it gives your opinion. You can be clear, firm and direct.

2. Avoid well-worn phrases

Some phrases are so familiar that they’ve lost their impact—they’ve become clichés.

For instance:

  • At the end of the day …
  • Like stealing candy from a baby …
  • For all intents and purposes … (sometimes miswritten as “for all intensive purposes”!)
  • Let the cat out of the bag …

Spotting phrases like these in your own writing can be tricky, so you might want to take a quick look through this huge list of clichés to avoid on the Be a Better Writer site.

You don’t have to cut every cliché, but you should think about whether a rephrasing might work better.

In dialogue, or in a first-person narrative, clichés can be a helpful way of characterizing someone’s speech or thought patterns—but make sure you’re being careful and deliberate.

3. Write directly to ‘you’ (in nonfiction)

Although this isn’t appropriate for every form of nonfiction, bloggers and freelancers often write directly to the reader as “you.”

This is a great way to make your writing direct, conversational and strong.

Blog posts and articles quite often use “you” or “your” very early on in the title and/or introduction. For instance, these posts on The Write Life (emphasis mine):

Freelance or Full Time: Which Journalism Path is Right for You?

Want to work in the media industry as a writer?

You generally have two options: You can seek employment as a staff member of a publication or look for freelance writing opportunities.

How to Format a Book: 10 Tips Your Editor Wants You To Know

Unless you prefer your friends to be story nerds or those who lean toward obsessive-compulsive tendencies when it comes to grammar, you shouldn’t necessarily seek to befriend your editor.

Use the singular “you,” and avoid phrases like, “some of you may know.” Yes, you (hopefully) have more than one reader, but each reader experiences your piece individually.

You can also use “I” where appropriate (e.g., to give an example from your own life), though usually it’s best to keep the focus of your piece on the reader.

4. Vary sentence structures

What’s wrong with this paragraph?

You should write regularly (not necessarily daily). You should aim to write at least once or twice a week (I recommend a total of 3-4 hours per week). You may find it difficult to keep this up at first (especially if you’ve not written much before).

The advice in it is perfectly reasonable. There’s nothing hideously wrong with the actual words used. But the three sentences are very similarly structured: Each one starts with “You,” followed by a modal verb (“should”/”may”) and all three end with a phrase in parentheses.

When you have several sentences in a row that follow the same pattern, they stand out … in a bad way.

Sometimes it’s appropriate to structure your sentences like this—e.g., in a bullet-point list—but in regular paragraphs it’s often unintentional on the author’s part, and seems artless and poorly edited to the reader.

For lots of help with sentence structure, check out It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences, by June Casagrande (Ten Speed Press).

5. Use subheadings as signposts

If you’re writing blog posts, articles or sales copy, subheadings are crucial.

They break up long pieces and help readers stay focused; they also offer signposts to readers who may be skimming for specific information.

When you craft your subheadings, think about:

  • Making them clear and direct (just like titles/headings). Don’t try to get clever.
  • Keeping them short. Subheadings typically have a larger font than regular text and don’t generally look good when they wrap around the end of a line.
  • Being consistent with the structure. For instance, each subheading might start with an imperative verb (as in this post).

6. Use direct, straightforward language

It’s very rare you’ll want to write something deliberately indirect. Instead, you want your words to come across clearly and strongly to the reader.

This means avoiding the passive voice—advice that you’ve probably heard before. In case you need a recap:

Active voice: John threw the ball. Succinct and clear

Passive voice: The ball was thrown by John. Wordier and less direct

The passive voice can also allow the agent (the person performing the action) to be omitted from the sentence altogether:

The ball was thrown.

This can be useful. For instance, the agent may unimportant or unknown, or you might want to conceal his or her’s identity. (“Mistakes were made” is a classic example here.)

In general, though, you should write in a direct, straightforward style.

Make it as easy as possible for readers to engage with your ideas or your story.

7. Read aloud (or edit on paper)

No first draft is perfect, and the above suggestions can help you rework yours.

Often it helps to go through your piece slowly and methodically. Many writers find that reading it aloud is useful for highlighting the cadence of your words.

If you prefer not to read aloud (or if your colleagues, family or cat would give you funny looks), then print out your draft so you can edit on paper.

Using a different format makes spotting typos and repetitive phrasings easier.

At times when printing isn’t practical, I’ve also found it helpful to convert my draft digitally. That might mean turning a Word document into a .pdf, putting a novel manuscript onto my Kindle or previewing a blog post so I can get closer to the reader’s experience.

Confident, powerful writing will help your message (or your story) deliver the impact you want.

What will you do this week to strengthen your next piece?

A version of this article first appeared on The Write Life.

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