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10 ways to improve your writing

Whether you’re writing business documents, fiction or academic essays you want to write the best pieces possible. The decline in teaching grammar in schools has led to a growing lack of confidence in writing skills for many people. Many of the traditional rules of writing have been scrapped and we’re not sorry to see them go but there have been losses along the way too.

Writing is all about communication and grammar is essential. You wouldn’t, for instance, tell a musician that notation is irrelevant. Here at RedPen BluePen, we’re slightly obsessed with the written word and freely admit to being grammar geeks, but you don’t need to take it to that level. So we’ve compiled (in no particular order) our top ten tips for improving your writing:

1.     Avoid clichés, buzzwords and jargon

Try not to write a phrase that you’ve heard before. It's impossible to avoid this all the time as there’s a finite number of ways to combine 26 letters but do try to avoid the obvious. Yes a cliché is a cliché because generally there’s truth in it, but it’s tired and needs its rest. They show that you have little to say that’s new or interesting, so sit back, think about what you’re trying to communicate and try to work out a different way to phrase that message.

Unless you’re writing for colleagues try to limit your use of jargon and/or buzzwords. Jargon can be a useful shorthand when everyone’s in the know but they act as an exclusion zone when you’re outside that circle. Find a lay term to use and keep it simple.

Buzzwords are just annoying.

2.     Clarity

The purpose of writing is to communicate something to another person and the beauty of it is that you don’t have to be present; you can communicate with people you’ve never met across distance and time. However, as we all know from emails and texts, the written word can be misinterpreted and misunderstood. So help your reader by keeping it simple, to the point, clear and relevant. Don’t let your sentences ramble on down the page. Keep them short, break them up with commas and semi-colons and ensure that the flow of ideas is consistent. The ideas from one paragraph should flow seamlessly into the next. Don’t jump about from A to D to F to B (also see point nine, ‘Plan’).

3.     Understand your audience

Don’t submit a work of fiction to your philosophy tutor (believe me, it doesn’t go down well) or write a statistical analysis in your short story. It sounds obvious but you really do need to be clear about your reader and their expectations. This doesn’t mean that you’re curtailing your creative independence, nor does it mean that you should just write what you think people want to hear but you do stand a greater chance of success when the style, language and content hits its target.

4.     Don’t rely on the spellchecker

Please. Do not rely on the spellchecker. It’s a great tool which you should run as a first check when you’ve finished any piece of writing. It’ll pick up some obvious typos but there are many, many ways this tool will let you down. Firstly, despite setting it to English UK, it’ll default to English USA at some point without telling you. It’s not a mind reader and so won’t highlight words that you didn’t intend to type – so long as they’re in the dictionary it’ll let them pass. Some of the things it won’t do is alert you to homonyms, separated compound words such as snow flake or bath room, missing words (again, it’s not a mind reader), factual errors, incorrect tenses, repetition (only if you type the same word one after the other) – it’s not going to tell you that you said the same thing three lines up or used the same word six times in the same paragraph. Read your work carefully, intently. Better still have someone else read it through. Employ a proofreader (shameless plug).

5.     Check your facts

I’ll assume if you’re a student that you’ve read all the relevant books and articles and are armed to the teeth with knowledge and declared sources (note, not Wikipedia); and if writing a business document that you’re using company data. This is primarily a pitfall for the fiction or article writer. Many articles are written by people with only a passing knowledge of the subject matter but who are skilled in mastering these areas quickly. You should be wary of basing your research solely on Google. Try to find three legitimate sources for your facts. Even if you’re writing fantasy or science-fiction there has to be some grounding in fact or you risk bringing the whole fictional scaffolding crashing. I’ve actually tossed a book aside when a blatant factual error has jarred.

I’ll also throw in a bit about copyright and libel here: there’s no copyright on an idea but there may be on a fact or a particular presentation of an idea or fact. If you lift things and drop them straight into your writing you may be guilty of plagiarism. You can’t libel a dead person and it’s not libel if it’s true, but take care when writing or commenting on real, identifiable people. If you’re writing fiction keep people and places fictional, a disclaimer might not be enough if someone can show that they’re identifiable from your writing and they’ve suffered some form of damage or loss from that identification.

6.     Work on your grammar and vocabulary

We can all learn and should keep on learning throughout our lives. If no-one taught you good writing skills then put it right. There are many paid-for and free courses available on the web so make the most of them. Buy or borrow a good grammar book (or find one online). If you’re a student, make use of your institution’s study skill courses; at work see if your company runs training courses in writing skills. Read and write every day – which brings us to (it's almost like we planned this)...

7.     Read and write

This is beyond doubt the best way to improve your writing. Read anything and everything. You’ll absorb structure, improve your vocabulary (look up words that are new to you) and be entertained. Try to focus your reading on the format in which you want to write but don’t be exclusive. Read bad writing too – there are many lessons to be learned about what not to do as there are from the very best work. 

Write every day. Develop a habit of writing and you’ll naturally become better with practice. Try different ways of writing. Keep a private notebook where you can experiment.

8.     Be confident

Most probably your writing is better than you think it is.  Have courage and let other people read it.

9.     Plan

This of course, should be your starting point when setting out. Not planning is not going to make you a more creative writer, not unless your writing consists solely of a stream-of-consciousness unburdening of your random thoughts. In which case you may wish to consider keeping a journal.

For everyone else I recommend beginning your writing session with 'A Plan', which can be anything from jotting a few notes to order your thoughts to full-scale mind mapping. Characters need to spring a few surprises to keep you on your toes but the author has to exert some degree of control. An academic essay is doomed to fail without proper planning and no-one’s interested in a sales bid that wanders and waffles.

10.     Get it done

Get it written. Don’t overthink or be too precious or worry that it’s not good enough. Don’t fall in love with research so much that you never get your story written. Just sit down, shut up and write.