At the beginning of every session I’ve ever taught writing, at least one student in the class will issue the disclaimer, “I’m a terrible writer.” That student seems to think he or she is incorrigible, hopeless, a lost cause with the written word. The poor kid was probably just the victim of too much red ink from some past English teacher. Almost without fail, I find that that student has a lot of promise as a writer and needs only a little tweaking of his or her writing. Educated people will judge you by how you write, so polishing your writing is worth the effort. Improving your everyday writing requires time, determination, and a forgiving spirit, but anybody can do it.
1. Pay attention. Have you ever bought a car and then suddenly noticed how many other cars just like yours are out on the roads? Plainly stated, you notice what you pay attention to. Good writers pay attention to words, written and spoken. Tune in to the language “wavelength” and discover what you can learn.
2. Surround yourself with words well spoken. Pick out someone you admire whose speech you would like to emulate. Listen to talk radio or watch C-SPAN or other television shows that deal with ideas. But choose your language models carefully. The fact is that we write what we hear in our heads, and what we hear in our heads is what we surround ourselves with.
3. Read, read, read. The best writers are those who have read a lot. Reading almost any kind of prose can help you improve your writing. If you like sports, don’t limit yourself to the box scores: read the sports columnists. Read the editorial pages of major newspapers, or seek out not just the news but the feature articles, especially in Sunday papers. These writers are published not just because they have something to say, but because they say it well. Immerse yourself in good writing.
4. Pull your grammar book off that dusty shelf. If you threw away your last grammar book from school, go buy another one. If you have questions about the correct form of a sentence, use that book to research the problem and the answer. Grammar is not rocket science, so don’t be intimidated by it. As quirky as English can be, a lot of grammar is actually quite logical. You don’t have to memorize everything in the book: just use it when you need it. I’ve found that many writers have only one or two basic grammar issues that they’ve never had explained to them. Figure out what your misunderstandings are, and you’re halfway to their resolution. Ask a knowledgeable friend for help, if you want.
5. Use your dictionary regularly. Don’t depend on spell check. Spell check can be a safety net before you send out a piece of writing to your boss, but train your brain to become your spell checker. Make a list of words you regularly misspell (spell check can tell you what they are). If you hear a word you are unfamiliar with, look it up to see how it is spelled. Become curious about words. This is why a dictionary can be so important: you not only can learn the correct spelling of words, but you can learn how they are used in different contexts. You can even discover a word’s roots, which might help you make sense of its meanings and spelling. Spell check just isn’t enough.
6. Use your thesaurus sparingly. A thesaurus is a great tool for reminding you of words you already know how to use, but if you are unfamiliar with a word or have never heard or read it being used, don’t use it. There is no more obvious giveaway that a person doesn’t have a clue than a person regularly misusing big words. Write to express, not to impress.
7. Keep it simple. Unless you make your living as a novelist or poet, your main purpose in writing is probably to communicate an idea clearly and concisely so that others understand it. Before you send out a memo or letter, write what you mean to say in plain English, as if you were writing it to your best friend. Then read it as if you are the recipient of that memo or letter – did you leave something out that is necessary to understanding your point? Is there a sentence that doesn’t make sense? Reduce your sentences to their simplest possible form, and then add whatever details are necessary to make your meaning clear. This is not a license to be rude – etiquette, common courtesy, and protocol are necessary. But writing your idea for another person to understand doesn’t require unnecessary complexity or ten dollar words.
8. Use the active voice, not the passive voice. “John hit Paul” (active) is a stronger sentence than “Paul was hit by John.” Of course, it depends on whom you want to emphasize, the “hitter” or the “hittee”. Sometimes you may want to be intentionally vague: “Mistakes were made” (but you don’t want to state by whom, or maybe you don’t know). The passive voice is perfectly grammatical; just determine what your intention is and use the active voice whenever possible.
9. Use strong verbs, and its corollary, write in complete sentences. You can make your writing clear by focusing on the action in the sentence. One strong verb carries more punch than a long string of adverbs.
10. Make sure your pronoun references are clear. Will your reader be able to figure out which “she” you mean, Linda or Connie? What is “it” – a plan, an idea, a dog? The antecedent of the pronoun, the word that comes before to which the pronoun refers, needs to be obvious to avoid misunderstanding.
11. Be careful with punctuation. It has been said that punctuation marks are like traffic signals, indicating when you should stop or pause in your reading. Maybe. But more punctuation doesn’t necessarily make your writing any clearer. Here’s where your grammar book can come in handy. Remember that punctuation marks themselves don’t carry any meaning. If your words don’t already describe some strong feeling, an exclamation point isn’t going to help. Overusing exclamation points is unprofessional.
12. Forgive yourself and others. You are going to continue to make mistakes, and so will even the best writers around you. Publishing houses have copy editors for authors who make millions of dollars writing books, because everyone who writes occasionally makes mistakes. It’s just a matter of degree: are your mistakes constant or occasional? So if you write something that you or someone else notices is ungrammatical or misspelled or incomplete, correct it, get over it, but don’t give up on yourself.
You want your first impression to be a good one, whether it be how you look or how you write. Learning to improve your everyday writing is a long term proposition and one that requires work, but if it’s what you really want, it’s worth the time and the effort.