Improve Your Writing

Use these simple tips to improve your writing, whether you are writing with less than 280 characters (Twitter) or more than 110,000 words (average novel length for epic, fantasy and sci-fi).

01 Read what you’ve written.

When my daughter was in elementary school she would frequently write something and then ask me to review it. I always asked, “Have you read through it yourself?” and her answer was usually, “No.” In my estimation, this is not just a problem limited to students still learning how to write and edit: I receive many emails where it is clear from either poor phrasing or bad grammar that the author never read the email before sending it. When you write, take a few minutes to read it and make quick corrections.

A great way to “read” through your writing is to have your device’s speech feature read it back to you. Computer-generated speech is definitely not like listening to Audible, but is fine as another voice to read your writing for you.

02 Run spelling/grammar checks.

Even when reading back through a document you may not notice misspelled words or grammar problems. ALL CAPS words are often skipped using automated checks. Many applications highlight misspelled words. Microsoft Word underlines misspelled words in red and questionable grammar in green. Certainly, not every grammatical improvement that Word suggests is correct, but often it works as the first editor of your writing.

Most document writing applications include some level of spelling and grammar checks. You can also explore some free apps.

03 Use word count/grade level tools.

Word count tools are useful if you set writing goals based on a certain number of words per day. However, word count tools—whether a feature of an application or stand-alone—often include grade level assessments of your writing. This can be helpful to ensure that you are writing at the appropriate level for your desired audience. It is also helpful if you are writing a longer document because you can keep the grade level consistent across various sections or chapters. I use WordCountTools.com. This paragraph (excluding this sentence) has 84 words and 498 characters, including spaces. The reading level is 11-12th grade.

04 Search for overused words.

Whether you call them “overused” or “weasel” words, you probably have certain words that you may use too often without even thinking about it. Whenever I write, I use the Find feature to highlight these words and see if I can eliminate them. Review your writing and try to identify overused words. It may be helpful to keep this list of words on a piece of paper prominently displayed on your computer.

Below is a list of words I try to avoid using …

  • That
  • There
  • Also

  • In terms of
  • Think
  • Very
  • Thing
  • So
  • Get/Got

05 Print to review.

I find it helpful to print a document when proofreading it, especially if a document is long. While I don’t print every e-mail and tweet, I prefer reading on paper because it is not as taxing on my eyes as on-screen reading. Printing documents also has the advantages of comparing different versions over time and presenting the writing in a different format so that it can be easier to spot mistakes and opportunities for improvement.

06 Use standard editing markups.

If you print a document, learn and use standard proofreading symbols. You can search for lists of these. The basic ones are delete, insert, close-up a space, bold, italicize, capitalize, and transpose words/letters.

07 Take a break between writing and editing.

Spaced repetition is a term used to describe increasing the intervals of time between study periods when reviewing information. Allowing an interval between writing and editing is beneficial because you will be able to view your writing with fresh eyes. I recommend allowing at least a day between writing and reviewing. If you’ve written a longer document like a book, I recommend waiting at least a week between finishing the writing and starting the editing.

08 Omit unnecessary words.

One of the principles in The Elements of Style by William Strunk and EB White is to “omit needless words.” When editing your work, look for ways to rephrase so that the same ideas can be stated in fewer words.

09 Adopt a mindful approach to writing.

I have frequently read that it is good just write while disregarding spelling, grammar, and sentence construction. While there may be a time for this type of creative writing to generate ideas, I believe it is better to be mindfully aware of spelling and grammar when writing. By keeping these tips and other sources of writing instruction in mind when writing, you can eliminate a lot of errors that would be caught during the first review of a document.

10 Read.

Another easy way to improve your writing is to read and study the writing of others. If you find a passage you like, spend a few extra minutes analyzing why it resonates with you.

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