Learning to write well doesn’t come naturally for most people. In fact, good writing is a skill acquired over many years of practice and experimentation (and, typically, good writing is accompanied with a lot of reading) . But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few tricks you can do to improve your writing right off the bat. After teaching writing to college students for nearly a decade, I have concluded that while good writing is always a work in progress, there are seven ways that will significantly improve a person’s writing right away.
#1: Stick to Your Argument and Purpose
The single most important writing skill you can master (besides the ability to write grammatically-correct enough to make sense, of course) is sticking to an argument through a prolonged piece of writing. You should be able to take anything you write–whether a short essay or an entire book–and sum it up in one sentence. And every paragraph should be clearly tied back into that one sentence. Avoid one of the most common pitfalls in writing: having something vague to say to say at first, then writing yourself through an argument (clarifying it in your own head as you go) and then ending up somewhere else when you finish. There are two things you can do to improve argument consistency: 1) write your one-sentence claim and/or purpose down and refer to it every time you write a new paragraph; 2) make conscious efforts to transition from one idea to the next by subtely or overtly referring back to your claim and/or purpose. There should be an obvious connection between everything you say and what your overall document is about.
#2: Be Specific
Being specific in your writing can’t be emphasized enough. If I say that your writing isn’t specific, you’ll probably look at me and say, well, can you be more specific? And my response should be something like this:
“Well, yes, I can be. So, here you go: on your résumé, don’t tell me that you ‘understand industry-specific software.’ Tell me that you are ‘proficient in Photoshop, AutoCad, and InDesign.’ Don’t write a generic statements like ‘the team ate dessert’; rather, show me what they ate, like this: ‘The athletes devoured the Krispy Kremes.’ And don’t use blah and vague references to statistics and information by saying ‘there were a lot of people at the event’; instead, give me the numbers: ‘over ninety-thousand fans crammed their way into the gates.'”
Always review your writing and see if there are places where you can specify the numbers, the people, the items, the locations. Don’t be afraid to use proper nouns. If the trick-or-treaters collected Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Twinkies, well then, say that. “Candy” isn’t nearly as interesting (or specific).
#3: Use Your Punctuation
The average writer makes use of common and necessary punctuation for clarity, like periods, question marks, exclamation points, commas, and apostrophes. Quotation marks tend to also be used by typical writers for direct quotes only. But, on average, few college-level writers out there make use of the whole punctuation gamut, which also includes hyphens, em dashes, parentheses, ellipses, semicolons, colons, italics, and brackets (as well as a few others). Like musical notations such as fermatas, crescendos, and diminuendos, punctuation creates the rhythm of writing. By using the occasional semicolon and colon (used properly and with purpose, of course), you can make reading speed up or slow down. You can set a real mood and response with punctuation; shoot, if you use the marks well, you can effectively create humor, sarcasm, emphasis, and all-around pithiness that would otherwise be lost or dulled. Check out the difference between these two sentences, the second of which uses more interesting punctuation:
1) The problems with the website for the Affordable Care Act, which have led to a political nightmare for the President, are becoming not only ridiculous, but downright frustrating.
2) The Affordable Care Act’s “website”–which has just become ridiculous now–is a political nightmare for the President; it’s also downright frustrating.
Punctuation in these two sentences creates a new rhythm. Also, the use of quotation marks around “website,” develop a sense of irony and sarcastic humor. The statement between the dashes provides an emphasis that wasn’t there before.
#4: Change Up Your Sentence Structure
Closely related to #3, there is real value in changing the way each of your sentences work in harmony with the ones around them. Create a nice long sentence–perhaps using a semicolon or em dashes–and then develop a short sentence that makes the reader pause. Make your readers stop. Or think. Then, continue with a normal sentence. And start another one that seems very similar to the previous. Repeat. See how the sentences are changing in length and structure, and how the variety creates a more interesting feel and a more dynamic reading experience? Like with a menu at a good restaurant, patrons of writing like variety. They like multiple flavors.
#5: Strengthen Your Nouns and Verbs
There is a misconception that you need to use incredibly fancy vocabulary and a whole bunch of adjectives (“the gust wrathfully whipped my wind-swept and hackneyed coat…”) to make writing sound nice. While adjectives and strong vocabulary can be useful, you don’t need to know what “imbroglio” (a misunderstanding) means to be a good writer. Just pay attention to the verbs and nouns you use: you know a whole lot more words that you think you do, so use them. Rather than saying “run,” for example, you might say “rushed.” Rather than saying “a good writer,” you might try “an expert penman.” Of course, don’t change every noun and verb to the point that it sounds goofy, but, back to #2, be specific. Change out the generic terms for others that have a lot more punch to them.
#6: Use Figures of Speech
You probably were taught in elementary school what a metaphor is. You probably also know about similes, idioms, and puns. But chances are, if you are like the average writer, your figures of speech knowledge ends there. But you really ought to be aware that there are dozens (well, scores) of figures of speech out there. The more you know, the better your writing will become. Figures of speech have the ability to communicate ideas and abstract concepts far better than rote or mechanical explanation. Think about pretty much any complicated concept in science: worm holes, string theory, big bang–they are all taught through metaphorical terms in order to make sense. Or, even think about how our brain is referred to as an information processor! We use figures of speech without really thinking, so they will naturally fall into your writing anyway (“I rolled out of bed”; “it raced through her mind”; “she’s toast”), but the more you consciously think about using them, the more you’ll find your writing kicking into high gear (see that subtle little figure of speech in use?)
You can refer to Wikipedia for a nice list of many of the figures of speech. But here’s a few you ought to learn to begin with, if you’re not already familiar with them: hyperbole (gross exaggeration for effect); synecdoche (using a part to refer to a whole, like “wheels” to refer to a car); metonymy (using a concept or thing to refer to something related, like “White House,” to refer to the government); and antithesis (juxtaposing two contradictory ideas).
#7: Cut Down on the Wordy Phrases
Sometimes, especially when we are trying to sound professional, technical, or legal, we have a tendency to want to include a bunch of extra words in phrases. Truth is, people hate reading wordy phrases, even if they can’t tell where it is wordy. Use of wordy phrases is a great way to incredibly bore your reader. For example, you will rarely ever need to say “a higher degree of”; just say “more.” And you don’t need to say “a total of seventeen students”; just say “seventeen students.” And especially avoid saying something like “regardless of the fact that”; just say, “although.” There are, literally, hundreds of these kinds of phrases. See a good list of them here. But one thing you’ll want to watch for are the prepositions (words like “of,” “on,” “into,” “for,” “around,” “about,” and so forth). Obviously you’ll need prepositions to communicate well, but too many of them may be a sign of wordiness. The more you can just get to the point, the crisper (and more enjoyable to read) your writing will become.
#8: Naturally Reference External and Cultural Concepts
This last concept is a little trickier to master and it encompasses several of the above improvements; it requires you to think outside the box and pull from life experience, previous readings, and generally the world around you. Drawing in cultural references coincides with #2, #5 and #6; often, drawing from culture will serve to provide more creative adjectives or adverbs and it will help you clarify and specify nouns. Using culture and life experiences will also help you to think in figures of speech, particularly metaphors and similes. Consider the following two sentences, which are bland and devoid of cultural references (as well as specificity, sentence variance, and intriguing nouns and verbs):
“The hope of MindSign Neuromarketing, a San Diego company, is to use fMRI technology to monitor the brain’s reactions to movies. The question is, what will audiences think about that?”
Now, consider these two sentences, which were published in Wired, and notice cultural references to Orwell’s 1984 and Jerry Bruckheimer (renowned Hollywood producer):
“That’s the dream of MindSign Neuromarketing, fledgling San Diego firm with an ambitious, slightly Orwellian charter: to usher in the age of ‘neurocinema,’ the real-time monitoring of the brain’s reaction to movies, using ever-improving fMRI technology. Do I really want Jerry Bruckheimer to jailbreak my amygdalae? Yes. Yes I do.”
These second two sentences naturally weave Orwell and Bruckheimer into the discussion to add a layer of complexity and interest. They also used verbs like “usher” and “jailbreak” to create metaphorical references to complex concepts.