Want to sound smarter? Learn to write better!
Know what most successful people have in common? They’re good communicators.
Know which form of communication is the most difficult to master? Writing.
Ernest Hemmingway reportedly said, “It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.” Knowing that writers themselves talk about how difficult writing can be, you shouldn’t feel badly if writing has never been your strong suit.
Cheer up, buttercup! Your fairy godmother of grammar is here to save the day with seven writing tips that will help you improve your writing—No magic wand needed for this one!
Wait … Can a handful of writing tips really help me to be a better writer?
I know what you’re thinking … If writing is difficult even for famous authors like Hemmingway, how are you going to become a good writer by following seven tips?! Let’s keep this in perspective. I’m not suggesting that by following my top seven writing tips you’ll be in the running for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But my writing advice will help you to communicate your ideas more clearly and effectively.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a high school student writing papers for lit class, an engineer drafting reports, or the founder of a startup crafting a pitch deck. The suggestions that follow below will teach you how to write better and that will make you sound smarter.
Without further ado, here are your fairy godmother of grammar’s top 7 tips for learning to write better.
1. Start with an outline
I know … You don’t like to outline before starting to write. (No one does!) But that’s probably because you aren’t doing it correctly.
Your outline should be concise.
Use only as many words as necessary to represent key points. It may be that a single word can represent a complex idea or even an entire paragraph. Write out the points you want to cover in an order that flows from one to the next.
The beauty of a brief outline is that it is easier to rearrange your thoughts before you begin writing. And following an outline while writing will help you to express your thoughts in a more logical fashion. Taking the reader from point A to B to C to D (as opposed to going from point A to B to D to C) also prevents rambling.
Presenting ideas in an orderly and logical fashion ensures that the reader will not have to follow you through a convoluted maze of ideas or guess exactly what it is you’re trying to convey.
2. Do a “brain dump”
Once you know what you want to say, start writing.
Get all of your ideas down on paper / in a document without regard to how each idea is conveyed. This will help ensure that all of your ideas are recorded.
And, the real writing comes in the next step …
Coco Channel said, “Before leaving the house, a lady should look in the mirror and remove one accessory.”
The same (often) holds true in writing. Don’t publish that first draft. It’s time to reread it and make some changes.
As you read through the document, ask yourself, “Does this phrase help clarify the remainder of the sentence for the reader? Does this sentence help move the reader from point A to point B? Does this paragraph strengthen my argument?”
Be honest. Be ruthless.
You may find that some of the ideas in your outline (or ones that were added during the brain dump) don’t move your argument forward or simply aren’t a good fit for this piece. Whatever the reason, anything that weakens your writing must be moved to the boneyard.
What’s a boneyard?
It’s an area below your draft, deliberately cordoned off from the rest of the piece (possibly below a heavy black line or row of asterisks).
The boneyard is used to save phrases and ideas that for some reason aren’t right for or aren’t working in this particular draft.
Never delete any of the phrases and ideas you worked so hard to put down on paper (or in a file) because you may not know if they can be worked into the current piece until the editing has been completed.
And any lines that don’t make the cut in the current piece may have value for a future writing project.
4. Envision a movie playing in your mind and describe it
Close your eyes. Envision the story you want to tell. As you are watching this movie play in your mind, write down everything you see and hear.
Remember that unlike watching movies in the theater, you can pause your film in order to jot down everything unfolding before you. If necessary, you can even rewind and re-watch.
This tip may not work for all writing projects or for all people. But it can be helpful in getting an accurate description of any action taking place. Thinking in images can also be useful in the next tip. …
5. Make the reader smell it, taste it, hear it, think it, feel it
We all love a book we can’t put down!
You know the kind: a book that transports you to another world or a short story that actually brings you to tears.
Know what makes a real page-turner?
It’s writing so vivid that we can almost smell, taste, and hear what’s going on in the story. Extreme detail conveyed through descriptive words and phrases is what makes the reader relate so strongly to the words on a page that they think and feel exactly what the author wants them to.
This is where the real fun starts—in word selection.
So instead of writing:
She got caught in a heavy rain as she went from store to store.
Try using a more descriptive word like deluge.
She was caught in a deluge during her weekly shopping excursion.
But don’t stop there. Set the stage. Or add the ramifications of being caught in the deluge:
She was caught in a deluge during her weekly shopping excursion. The freezing drops of rain that pounded her face made the street barely visible as she struggled to see through nearly shut eyes. Her entire body trembled underneath the sweatshirt and jeans that had been soaked by the frigid rain. As she scanned the row of store fronts desperately looking for an awning that might provide refuge from the downpour, water streamed down her face.
Even if you’re not working on a creative writing piece, you can still employ this technique.
After reading each sentence, pause and challenge yourself to convey the same idea more vividly. Ask yourself if you could restate the sentence to make the idea more tangible and real for the reader.
You may also be able to make the reader feel emotion simply by setting the scene. All you need to do is add: picture this or imagine, and then simply describe the backdrop for your argument. For example:
Imagine you are a newborn kitten, yet to explore the world. Everything is new, and lots of things are scary. Loud noises make you afraid. Who are those tall people who could hurt you if they’re not careful? It’s hard being a kitten!
Imagine you are a newborn kitten, yet to explore the world. Everything is brand new, and lots of things are scary. Loud noises Loud crashes and even paper crinkling make you afraid cower under the safety of your mother. Who are those tall people giants who could hurt squash you with one step if they’re not careful? It’s hard being a kitten!
Note: I could have chosen another word for both scary and hard, but terrifying (for scary) and difficult (for hard) didn’t seem to right for my register.
6. Elevate the quality of your work
To really take your writing to the next level, pay close attention to how you say things. Make sure you choose descriptive words and that those words are appropriate for the piece. Additionally, you’ll want to keep your audience’s attention and help them through your essay by varying the types of sentences you string together and connecting one paragraph to the next.
Focus on Word Choice
Continuing on the theme of word selection, read through your piece once more to ensure that you have used the most descriptive words possible.
An easy place to start is to replace “very + adjective” with one more descriptive word. So very hungry becomes starving. (Our friends at GrammarCheck.net have a fantastic list of adjectives so you can remove just about all the instances of very in your work!)
Another easy fix is a review of your adjectives and adverbs. Are there lists of better adjectives and adverbs? Yes. But they are far from exhaustive, and there’s no guarantee that your time will be well spent scanning list after list.
And be sure to use synonyms. Instead of using street over and over, mix it up. Throw in road, avenue, and maybe even path.
Choose Appropriate Words
Be careful with your replacements, however. Just because loquacious appears in some list of “better” adjectives doesn’t mean you use it instead of talkative to describe one of your characters.
Any replacement words must fit in with the style, tone, and register of your work. If you’re writing in a very conversational tone, you definitely do not want to stick in a bunch of vocab words from an old SAT prep book. You want the less formal vocabulary that most of us use day in and day out. Make sure your word selection is appropriate.
(Richard Nordquist penned a concise but complete explanation of register for Thought.co—I highly recommend checking it out!)
Vary Your Sentence Structure
Repetition gets tedious; and sentence structure is no exception to the rule. You’ll bore your audience to tears if you use simple sentence after simple sentence after simple sentence. (Just think of Dick and Jane or any other early reader book.)
So mix things up! Use a combination of simple and compound sentences. Throw in sentences that begin with clauses for good measure. For example:
The dog sat on the mat. The cat pounced on the hat. The rat ran away with the cheese. The rabbit looked on in disgust.
The dog sat on the mat, and the cat pounced on the hat. While the rat ran away with the cheese, the rabbit looked on in disgust.
Don’t forget your transitions
Yes, the first sentence of each paragraph in your essay could start with: To begin, Secondly, Thirdly, and In conclusion. But you can do better!
The easiest way to move your reader from one paragraph to the next is to take the last idea from the preceding paragraph and make it into a dependent clause in the first sentence of the next.
To illustrate, let’s assume I’m an elementary school student writing an essay with three body paragraphs. The topic of the essay is what I enjoyed most about my summer vacation: playing in the local soccer league, reading one book per week, and visiting my grandparents in Florida.
How do you make a dependent clause? It’s easy.
Start with a sentence:
I played soccer all summer long, and it was really fun.
Playing soccer all summer long was really fun.
Next, add while, because, or even though to the beginning of that sentence—it will no longer be a complete sentence:
While playing soccer all summer long was really fun
(Note: There are lots of other ways to make dependent clauses, this is just an easy one to demonstrate the technique.)
Then add your clause to the beginning of a sentence dealing with the main topic of your second paragraph:
While playing soccer all summer long was really fun, I needed indoor activities to get out of the hot sun. I decided to try to read one book every week. …
Basically, you’re taking two complete sentences, making one into a clause that cannot stand alone, and smooshing the two together. (Yes, that is the technical explanation. Google it if you don’t believe me.)
7. Edit, edit, edit!
You may not want to hear it at this point, but you need to edit your work again. Yes, again.
If you have the luxury of time, put your work aside for a few days before sitting down to edit. If not, at least turn your attention to something completely unrelated for several minutes—you need a little distance from your work in order to view it through fresh eyes.
In this step of the writing process, you may realize that you were overzealous in painting a picture for your reader, and well, it’s boring. Remember, if your words aren’t moving the story forward in some way, those words, however pretty, aren’t needed and need to be placed in the boneyard.
Superfluous words and phrases are also weeded out in this read through.
Also keep in mind that once you have made a change, you need to read a couple of sentences preceding and following the updated line. The last thing you want to do is to be a little too aggressive with the ole red pen and remove an important transition or bit of key information.
After reviewing the entire piece … you’re still not finished. (Ignores groans)
Finish editing with spelling and grammar check. Spell check isn’t 100% accurate, but it sure can be helpful in eliminating embarrassing spelling errors! Don’t publish without it!
And that, my pretties, includes my top seven tips to write better and sound smarter.
xx Fairy Godmother of Grammar
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