8 Tips to Improve Writing
Surely there has been no writer in the history of letters who looked down upon the blank page with an easy smile. Writing. This age-old process — to “unpack the heart with words” — can be head-bangingly difficult work. But it is also that activity which brings us everything so quintessentially human, from science to religion and every shade of thought between them. The best thing about it? With practice and a few guiding principles, anyone can improve writing — in quality and in ease.
#1 Good, clear writing is nothing more than good, clear thinking.
Why is it that the hardest part of writing is getting started? Usually, it’s because the big whirling mass of all we want to say feels too big to tame into actual words. Here’s a trick: call a friend and talk them through your argument before you ever take pen to page. Ask them where they get lost, what they remember, and when they feel most connected to your train of thought.
#2 Diagram your argument.
Think of writing your essay like building a house: the first thing you’ll need is a blueprint. Now, we often hear about making outlines, but I’m arguing here for something more geometric. With big squares, circles, triangles, lines, and arrows, shape out the structure of your argument. This way you’ll see which points need to come first in order to support the weight of others. Let your architectural imagination glide freely and have some fun.
#3 More paragraphs=A happier reader.
Keeping your reader interested is essential to improve writing anything! One way to do it is with more and shorter paragraphs. A paragraph should deal with one complete idea within your larger argument. In other words: new idea, new paragraph. This keeps your thinking on the move, and dances your reader along the track of your reasoning. If you’ve gone a page without a paragraph break, you’ve gone too far.
#4 Sentence structure: rhythm and flow.
The sentences that make up a piece of writing set the rhythm that your reader reads by. If all of your sentences fall in at similar lengths, your reader will lull herself out of attention, and lose the thread of your thinking. Challenge yourself to create a varied sentence structure, in which long, looping phrases mingle with short, percussive ones. Like any good beat, your sentences need to change to keep up the flow.
#5 Beef up your verbs!
Verbs make writing travel. They infuse a sentence with a feeling of motion, of direction, and time. Whereas nouns are static and adjectives merely descriptive, verbs take the imagination of a reader from point A to point B. The more verbs you use, the more powerfully your argument will move a reader. Cut back your adverbs and adjectives in favor of more specific verbs.
#6 Don’t delay: nix that passive voice today.
The passive voice dampens the force of a verb by making its object the subject of the sentence, i.e. “The field is roamed by goats.” A cleaner, more direct way of writing the same thought: “Goats roam the field.” A good way to check yourself: if you can add the phrase, “by zombies,” after the verb in your sentence, and it still makes sense, you’re probably writing in the passive voice.
#7 Run from clichés.
Clichés are just a bunch of things people have already said. Over and over again. When we read a cliché like “scared to death” or “the calm before the storm,” our mind basically skips over it, acknowledging the tired unit of information it conveys but not needing to consider it critically. This adds up to a boring reading experience, in which your reader feels they aren’t learning anything new. Keep it fresh!
#8 Read that puppy out loud.
Before you ever turn a paper in, make sure you read it out loud to yourself and — ideally — to others. We read papers in our heads as if they’re being voiced. In a way, we can hear them. If your paper makes sense when read aloud, it will be all the clearer when read in silence. And, importantly, you’ll catch way more mistakes proofreading out loud.
So the next time you feel your brain knotted up against that blinding challenge of the blank page, remember that you are not alone. Writers of every era and human makeup have wrestled before you with the same beast, and emerged with a deeper knowledge of themselves and the wild world of words. Hopefully these tips will help you improve writing on your own.
Get writing, my friends.