Learning to write well takes years of practice. Writing is a high skill and is on a par with other abilities that require thousands of hours of training to perfect. Good writing is part creativity, part structure, part word choice, and mostly hard work. To be an excellent writer, you have to do a lot of things well, but to become one, you should focus on advancing a step at a time. In this article, I present ten tips that will help you improve your writing. Putting these suggestions into practice will enhance your awareness of your use of language, and you’ll begin to see more and more ways to improve your prose.
Savvy writers seek an increased consciousness of the particulars of their craft. Some experienced penmen claim that no hard-and-fast rules exist, but in truth, standards do underlie the work of all good writers, whether they admit it or not. Here are a few suggestions that I believe contribute to the production of clean and concise English prose.
1. Use Active-Voice Sentences.
In active-voice sentences, the subject acts on a verb, as in “Jennifer mails the gift.” In this example, the subject, “Jennifer,” does the mailing. The same sentence in a passive-voice construction, “the gift is mailed by Jennifer,” is awkward and lacks force. The new subject, “the gift,” does nothing. Rather, it receives the action, which is Jennifer’s mailing. The cumulative effect of utilizing passive-voice sentence structures is to muddle the writing and confuse the reader. Situations that permit the use of the passive voice do exist, but probably on a ratio of less than one sentence per thousand.
2. Avoid Using Expletives.
Aside from being an oath or obscenity, an expletive is a word or phrase that serves as filler in a sentence. An example is the word “there” as employed in “there is,” “there are,” “there was,” “there were,” and so forth. “There is a car across the street” is better worded as, “A car is across the street.” The avoidance of this kind of expletive is not an absolute rule, but your writing will improve if you eliminate “there” and its cousins most of the time. Some examples of expletives are: it is, it was, it might have been, it could have been, it might be, there might be, it must have been, there must have been, there have been, there may have been, it has been, and it had been.
3. Don’t Split Infinitives.
A split infinitive is a construction that employs a word or phrase between the marker “to” and its verb. An example of a split infinitive is: “He intends to more than triple his earnings.” The words “more than” split the infinitive “to triple.” Although grammarians disagree on the permissibility of splitting infinitives, better ways to do it usually exist.
One argument in favor of splitting infinitives is that many famous writers have done so. Before the availability of personal computers, writers were unable to refine their manuscripts with the ease that we can today. Errors were common, and authors’ egos didn’t permit admissions of fallibility. Post-publication efforts to justify split infinitives abound.
4. Avoid Using “Him or Her,” “His or Her,” “He and She,” Etc.
You can always avoid these strained and convoluted constructions without being sexist and without using an ungrammatical “they” or “them” to fudge a solution. Achieving a smooth modification frequently requires experimenting with options, but if you work to find alternative sentence structures, you can completely steer clear of this awful and lazy form of writing.
5. Avoid Using “Very.”
Something doesn’t become more important because you proclaim it to be “very” important. Important is important, and is not enhanced by the addition of “very.” Avoid using “very,” and your writing will move one small step closer to excellence.
6. Keep Your Sentences Short.
This tip applies principally to novice writers. As your writing improves, you’ll find yourself able to employ increasingly long and intricate sentences without losing your readers or yourself. While you are learning, however, keeping things simple and to the point will dramatically improve your writing.
7. Find And Replace Duplicate Words.
Editing copy is easier than ever with the search function on the personal computer. The frequency of appearance and the relative placement of words matter, and good writers work hard to find the right word variation and distribution. As I write, I use the dictionary, thesaurus, and computer-search function to vary and space words throughout the piece. If you do this diligently, the quality of your writing will improve markedly.
8. Choose Your Words With Care.
The first word that comes to mind when composing a rough draft frequently is not the best one, and stopping to find a better word may not be wise as ideas are flowing out of you. When you edit subsequent drafts, however, you should make an effort to encounter the best words. I sometimes change a word several times before arriving at the correct one. Engaging in such discipline is laborious but fruitful.
9. Don’t Fall In Love With Your Writing.
Inexperienced writers resist eliminating passages they believe are well written, creative, or catchy. Becoming enamored with your own words is a cardinal sin. As you mature as a writer, you’ll come to believe that only one thing matters—the good of the overall piece. Excellent writing requires making lots of decisions, and if you make enough of them well, the result will be pleasing. A few bad choices can seriously undermine your work. Seasoned writers consider no word, sentence, or paragraph sacred. They readily cut any portion to uplift the remainder. Getting to this point takes practice, but your writing will improve decidedly once you are able to delete a cherished paragraph for the benefit of the whole.
10. Do Multiple Drafts.
Some writers declare that they write cleanly or have only to do a couple of revisions to prepare a story for readers’ eyes. Such statements are not only arrogant, but also blatantly false. No one can achieve fine writing in a couple of drafts.
Superior writing is about concision and precision, and you can accomplish neither quickly or easily. A short piece like this one takes me eight to ten drafts to refine and finalize. Book-length works require many more drafts, because finishing means tying up lots of loose ends. Such longer pieces take me from thirty to fifty drafts or more, depending on the definition of a draft. I define a draft as reading the manuscript and making all the changes to it that I can think of at the time. I continue revising draft after draft until I no longer see any way to improve the piece.
Following these suggestions will improve your writing and increase your awareness of what is on the written page. The attainment of such consciousness is a most significant step on the road to becoming an excellent writer.