6 Tips For Immediately Improving Your Writing Skills
Do you ever wish you had paid more attention in your high school English composition class? Maybe you’re feeling rusty on the more obscure grammar rules, or perhaps you wish you knew how to use adjectives in a way that elevates (rather than complicates) your writing. Being a skilled writer takes practice and dedication, but if you’re mostly looking to polish up some skills (instead of becoming the next Hemingway) then here are some quick tips that will immediately improve your writing skills.
Cut “That” out
Pop quiz: what’s an alarmingly overused word that drags down writing without you even knowing it? The word “that” can be used in multiple parts of speech, including pronoun, adverb, adjective, etc. which means many people use it like black pepper: early and often. But just like pepper, “that” can easily be overused and will overshadow your writing if you let it. Here’s an easy way to identify if you’ve overused “that”: highlight the word in red, and chop anywhere it’s not necessary. In some instances, you can replace “that” with a more interesting word or phrase, in other places it works to simply cut it out. Here’s an example:
Do you ever wish that you had paid more attention in that written composition class in high school?
Do you ever wish you had paid more attention in your high school written composition class?
Cutting excessive “thats” will immediately improve your writing!
Master the semicolon
What if I told you there was a punctuation mark that was sophisticated, often misused and misunderstood, but could elevate your writing to the next level? The semicolon scares off many people because they don’t understand it, but it’s one of my favorite punctuation marks because it turns two simple, choppy sentences into lovely, complex prose. Consider the following:
The cats came out to play at night. They were loud and rambunctious.
The cats came out at night to play; they were loud and rambunctious.
Your brain read the semicolon like a very brief pause instead of a hard stop, and if you use it to connect two sentences of related topic, it adds flow and meaning to your writing. There are a few more rules and uses for the semicolon, but I think The Oatmeal explains it (with visuals) far better than I could.
Read whatever you wrote out loud
My absolute favorite technique for getting my students to catch, and revise, their own mistakes was to have them read their writing out loud. If a phrase was oddly worded, didn’t make sense, or something didn’t sound right, they knew exactly what to work on. This strategy isn’t foolproof; you will still need to run a spellcheck and correct grammar you’re uncertain about to finish strong. But reading it out loud will catch many of the awkward phrases and mistakes, and is a solid way to immediately improve your writing.
Utilize free tools to expand your vocabulary
If you’re stuck using the modifier “very” to emphasize your points, consider making thesaurus.com one of your best friends. Instead of “very happy” you may find your subject is “ecstatic” or “jubilant.” Simply enter the word you want to replace, and see what magnificent options show up! The English language is vibrant and complex, but only if we work to expand our usage of it. Your writing can go from basic and unengaging, to complex and riveting with just a few word swaps.
Use color-coding to improve organization
One of the biggest challenges all writers have (and yes, everyone who strings together words can be considered a writer in some form or another) is how to organize ideas and evidence in a logical manner. Sometimes things make a lot of sense in our heads, but on paper (or screen) those ideas are not translated well for the reader. Often this is related to poor organization; different ideas and thoughts occupy the same sentence or paragraph, leading to a jumble of information. The quick solution is to use color coding while writing.
For example, let’s say you’re writing about cat behavior. Every sentence about cat eating habits can be in green, the way cats play can be in purple, and so on. What you’ll notice is that if you stick an unrelated sentence in the middle of a paragraph (say a sentence about how cats groom in the midst of a paragraph about how cats sleep), it will be obvious and easy to fix. Here’s how it will look in practice:
Know your platform and audience
Writing an email to your supervisor is quite a bit different than writing a blog post, and different best-practice rules guide both types of writing. For instance, online writing means writing in such a way that search engines will find your content, so the reading level tends to be a little bit lower and many blog writers will use the keyword phrases they want to be found for over and over again. Have you noticed me trying to slip in the phrase “immediately improve your writing” a few times? This would be awkward in an email, but it’s common practice in blogging. This goes for published articles, books, memos, briefs, etc. Make sure you’re familiar with the etiquette for each type of writing, as this will immediately improve your writing skills. See what I did there?
Bonus: Get to know at least one more fancy punctuation mark
This isn’t a tip you can apply immediately, but it is one you can work on right now that will have a big impact. Everyone is familiar with the old workhorses of the period and the comma, but adding at least one more (like parentheses, colons, hyphens, etc.) can add interest and depth to your writing. If there is a way to emphasize something with the tone of your voice while speaking out loud, then there’s a punctuation mark to represent it. I’m a fan of this guide which explains the different punctuation marks in an easy to understand, less-jargon-y manner. Though they have strong opinions about exclamation points, so if that’s currently one of your favorite punctuations, be advised!
Becoming a better writer isn’t just for people who get paid to string words together; improving your writing skills can have a positive ripple effect throughout your career because it will allow you to better articulate your ideas and thoughts in a clear, easy-to-understand manner.