William Strunk Jr. in the classic book Elements of Style said:
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
If you want to write as best as you can, respond clearly and powerfully to your readers’ needs and make every word tell–whether you are writing a short story, blog post, business letter or e-mail–you must watch how you write. It doesn’t matter what your cultural or educational background is, do these little, painless things from today to quickly improve your writing and dramatically enhance effectiveness of your communication.
1. Read more—as much and as often as you can.
Read authors, bloggers, reporters and any other types of writers you can find. Study their language, sentence and grammar use to learn what works. This will not only improve your vocabulary and use of proper syntax and grammar, but also broaden your world view, excite your imagination, arouse your curiosity and stimulate your creativity. When you read, you expose yourself to interesting topics, experiences, cultures and can tap into the minds of creative thinkers. Besides that, reading is enjoyable and therapeutic. Fit it into your hectic life and it will help you relax and unwind.
2. Write daily—at least 15 minutes every day.
“The secret of becoming a writer,” Jerry Pournelle says, “is that you have to write.” He is right. It doesn’t matter how much you write, just write every day. Writing everyday is the best way to practice the craft and improve how you think. It also helps you form a writing habit. Find your own pace and write for three hours, half an hour or even just 15 minutes a day. You don’t have to write 40 printed pages a day, but you do need to make sure you write at least 15 minutes each day. If you can’t think of something to write about, keep a personal diary or journal and update it daily.
3. Write in plain English.
No matter how complex or technical your subject is, write your message in the most direct, easy-to-understand and concise way possible. Don’t assault your readers’ intelligence and patience with bloated vocabularies, pretentious jargon and extraneous ideas. Employ familiar, everyday words to facilitate reader enjoyment and comprehension. For instance, instead of writing ‘eliminate,’ write ‘end.’ The word ‘end’ is shorter, punchier and more familiar with people around the world. It reduces chances of confusion and misinterpretation of your intended meaning.
4. Separate the writing and editing processes.
Separating the writing and editing processes allows you adequate time, space and quiet necessary to complete both tasks successfully. Focus on writing your message down uninhibited at first draft. Address surface level issues of grammar, style and typos later during the editing stage. There is no shame in writing a bad first draft just as long as you set aside plenty of time to edit later. Author Cecil Castellucci says it best: “The best flowers are fertilized by crap.”
5. Open with your main idea.
State your main idea–or at least give a strong hint of your main message–in the first few opening sentences. Don’t keep the reader waiting and guessing for too long about what you are writing about. People are impatient and won’t stick around to read through your ramblings. Similarly, avoid opening your writing with strings of generic sentences. Instead of saying Chicago is a ‘big city,’ open with something unique about Chicago that cannot be said of most other cities. For example, you could say Chicago is the ‘windy city.’ You can’t say that of other cities in the U.S.
6. Vary your sentence length, structures and types.
Varying sentence length, types and structures helps you avoid monotony and allows you to provide emphasis where appropriate. Use short sentences to emphasize an idea and create a punch. Use longer sentences to define, illustrate or explain ideas. Also, blend simple, compound and complex sentences, as well as including occasional commands and question to spice up your writing. Keep in mind that writing is more than just meaning—it’s also about sounds and can be about visual appearance on paper or screen as well.
7. Use concrete words.
Concrete words are terms for things that can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched, such as table, hot and dancing. Stick to concrete words and avoid abstract terms as much as possible. Abstract words and phrases are not available to the senses and point to personal opinion, such as “great,” “wonderful” and “one of the best.” These abstract terms often represent mere rhetoric. Just because you say something is “great” doesn’t mean everyone else thinks the same way. If you must use abstract words, qualify them with concrete evidence from reliable sources.
8. Trim everything down.
When editing or revising your work, eliminate any unnecessary words and phrases in your text to ensure your words get straight to the point rather than beating about the bush or being boastful, pushy or fluffy. Nothing shouts “armature” than using extraneous, wordy terms and phrases in your writing. Instead of writing ‘owing to the fact that’ or ‘due to the fact that,’ just say ‘since’ or ‘because.’ Similarly, instead of saying, ‘bring the matter to a conclusion’, just say ‘conclude.’ Trimming everything down makes your writing easy to consume and understand. It simply improves readability.
9. Consider the reader’s agenda.
Don’t start to write until you know who exactly you are writing for. Who is your target audience? What problem or need do they have? What gender are they? Where in the world are they located? What is in it for them? Will this solve their problem? It is never enough to only factor in your own agenda when writing. Always weave into your work the audience’s agenda and pack as much value in there for them as possible. If you can do this, the battle is half won. You are already a decent, conscientious writer.
10. Break any of these rules.
We write to express ourselves, as much as to inform, educate and entertain. Don’t take yourself or writing too seriously. Relax and have fun expressing yourself. When you are relaxed and having fun, you won’t be dull or unnecessarily clever. You will write naturally without worrying about pleasing everyone. Your readers will get value from your words and enjoy reading them. And, as George Orwell advised in his Rules for Writers, “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”
Featured photo credit: Rubin Starset via flickr.com