How To Improve Your Writing

Learning to become a better writer might seem daunting. Still, you can quickly improve your skills by breaking them down into manageable steps. Every writer will have strengths and weaknesses, and by focusing on your weakest areas first, you’ll learn to write better over time.

Organizing your topics and creating a narrative structure that supports your ideas will improve your writing. Learning grammar rules and checking your spelling will make your work more professional. To become a better writer, you should practice writing and read widely.

As with any skill, the more you write, the faster you will see improvement. Certain aspects of writing require a complete rethink in your approach. In contrast, others are easy fixes that will make your work more understandable and appealing to your readers.

How To Improve Your Writing

As an editor and writer, I work with many writers to improve their skills. I’ve noticed several issues and weak areas come up repeatedly.

We’ll look at the essential skills you need to build to strengthen your writing. Whether you’re working on your first (or tenth!) novel or want to improve your emails, all writing requires several essential things to help you communicate better.

The foundational elements of sound, effective writing are:

  • grammar
  • spelling
  • vocabulary
  • tone and style
  • goals
  • structure

These are critical basics to master, as they will help your writing look professional and ensure you are understood.

Suppose your spelling is terrible, or you use incorrect words. In that case, readers will take your writing less seriously or dismiss it altogether. And if incorrect grammar makes your work incomprehensible, people will completely disregard what you have to say or misunderstand you.

Read and Write More

You will vastly improve your writing and develop a deeper understanding of grammar and sentence structure by reading the work of good writers. You will also improve your vocabulary by reading widely.

Don’t only stick to one kind of writing, either—read novels, short stories, blog posts, nonfiction, essays, and articles. The more diverse your reading, the more you will learn about different styles and tones and how content can be effectively presented.

The more you practice your writing and learn from your mistakes, the better your work will become.

You don’t need to write novels to improve; every little bit of writing you do adds to your practice. Whether you’re writing emails, essays, short stories, or presentations, you can build your skills by writing daily.

One excellent exercise for fiction writers is to copy out the opening pages of a novel you admire. This exercise helps focus you on your favorite writers’ word usage and sentence construction.

This kind of close reading helps you dissect what makes good writing work and teaches you to apply it to your work. You should never plagiarize or try to pass off their work as your own!

As Stephen King says in his memoir On Writing, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

Improve Your Spelling

We are fortunate to live in a digital age where the correct way to spell a word is at our fingertips. Most, if not all, word processing software comes bundled with spelling and grammar checkers.

If you write on a computer or laptop, your software will flag misspelled words. However, installing other spelling checkers on your desktop or search engine is possible. Grammarly is one example of a software application that will highlight spelling errors in your emails or messages.

You can also improve your spelling by reading and writing more. As you correct your errors, please pay attention to them, and remember the correct spelling for next time.

Spellchecks and tools like Grammarly are not foolproof and can miss homophones and other words that may be correctly spelled but have been misused. If you’re uncertain, it’s worth looking up the correct spelling and meaning in a dictionary. Many reputable online ones exist for both American and British English.

Improve Your Grammar

Perhaps it’s been years since you last sat in an English class, wrangling with sentence constructions and where a comma should go. While you don’t need to always follow every grammar rule to the letter, it’s good to know the basics so that your writing is clear and professional.

Grammar needs and how you apply the rules will also vary, depending on context. While you don’t need to follow strict grammar while texting a friend, you’ll need to pay more attention to details when writing professional documents.

Having good grammar allows you to communicate more effectively. Readers can understand your meaning better if your punctuation and structure are correct. Poor grammar can imply a lack of education or poor attention to detail. Both look terrible when applying for a job or handing in a college essay!

A writer’s style guide, such as The Oxford Manual of Style or Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, will cover all the elementary grammar and punctuation rules.

A style guide such as the one used at The Economist can be invaluable if you are a journalist. At the same time, technical writers can improve their work with guidance from Technical Report Writing Guides.

 You can buy the complete books for more in-depth and obscure grammar needs. The style guide you use will depend on your writing needs—most U.S. writers will use Strunk and White.

Basic Grammar Rules

Below are some common errors I see, all of which are easy to fix and will immediately improve the quality of your writing. Remember that you can also break grammar rules for effect— particularly in creative writing—but you still need a solid grounding in the basics.

The writer Elmore Leonard says of grammar, “I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”

However, even the most successful writers need to know what they’re doing before they change the rules to suit.

1.     Apostrophes

We use apostrophes to show possession and to indicate contractions. Usually, this rule is easy to follow, but many writers need help with ‘it’s’ in particular.

When possessive apostrophes are used with a name or noun, they are used with an s. Examples:

  • ‘This is Brian’s car.’
  • ‘She melted in the fire’s heat.’

We don’t add apostrophes to possessive determiners such as their, our, his, or her.

Sometimes proper names end with an s, in which case you can add only the apostrophe or apostrophe with an s. Classical names such as Jesus or Moses only get an apostrophe. Examples:

  • ‘The Jones’ house’ and ‘The Jones’s house’ are correct.

When adding an apostrophe to a plural noun ending in s, you do not add another s. Example:

  • ‘I slept in the boys’ room’ is correct, but ‘I slept in the boys’s room’ is incorrect.

Apostrophes also show contractions by indicating the missing letters.

  • It is – it’s
  • That is – that’s
  • Where is – where’s

Notice that it’s is a contraction, not a possessive.

  • It’s nearly time’ is correct
  • ‘That is its cage’ is correct
  • ‘That is it’s cage’ is incorrect.

2.     Sentence Fragments

A whole sentence has a complete thought and a verb. When no verb is present, or the phrase is not a complete thought, we call this a ‘sentence fragment.’ They can be used to excellent effect in creative writing but should be avoided if you are writing formally.

Length is not a determiner of a sentence fragment, as a complete sentence can be short. For example, ‘She walked.’ is a complete sentence. On the other hand, ‘because the bus was canceled.’ is a sentence fragment.

You can join a sentence fragment to a complete sentence: ‘She walked because the bus was canceled, or ‘because the bus was canceled, she walked.’

3.     Correct Punctuation For Dialogue

While the basics of sentence punctuation are easy to understand, things can sometimes get confusing when writers need to punctuate dialogue.

Sentences start with a capital letter and close with a period, but how does this apply when writing dialogue? We indicate dialogue with quotation marks and use verbs such as asked, shouted, whispered, or said to denote who is speaking.

When using speech tags, they become part of the sentence. We use a comma to separate the dialogue from the speech tag.

Character actions are not speech tags and should be separate sentences.

For example:

  • Correct: “I’m going to the shop,” Charlie said.
  • Correct: “I’m going to the shop.” Charlie picked up his car keys.
  • Correct: “I’m going to the shop.” Charlie grimaced.
  • Incorrect: “I’m going to the shop,” Charlie grimaced.

Note when dialogue ends with a comma and when with a period.

4.     Comma splices

A comma splice is another term for a run-on sentence. When a comma separates grammatically complete phrases without a conjunction, it is known as a comma splice. It can be used effectively in creative writing styles but should be avoided in formal essays.

You can correct it by splitting it into two sentences, using a conjunction to join them, or using a semi-colon if the second sentence is short.

  • Incorrect: Jane dressed in her best suit for the interview, she was nervous.
  • Correct: Jane dressed in her best suit for the interview. She was nervous.
  • Correct: Jane dressed in her best suit for the interview; she was nervous.
  • Correct: Jane dressed in her best suit for the interview, but she was nervous.

Improve Your Vocabulary

Knowing the right word and when to use it can elevate your writing. However, this doesn’t mean you should use complex or unusual words in every sentence.

In many cases, you can get your point across best by using simple, everyday language. Write to your audience—are simplicity and clarity your goals, or are you writing to impress?

If you are overusing a word and would like to use a synonym, WordHippo is an excellent resource. While synonyms are an excellent way of adding variety to your writing, you need to ensure that you keep the sentence’s meaning the same. Not all synonyms can be successfully swapped.

Use the Correct Writing Style

To convey the right tone in your writing, you must always be aware of your audience and goals.

For example, if you are writing a guide, you want to ensure you are understood and that your instructions are clear.

  • Short sentences and straightforward words make it easier for people to follow.
  • Technical words should be explained if you are writing for a general audience.
  • Avoid overusing jargon.
  • Some writing will require more formality.
  • Other audiences will react better to a more casual, friendly tone.
  • Remain business-like for professional writing, even with a more conversational style
  • Tailor your writing for your intended audience’s age and ability. You will use a different writing style for a university thesis than you would for a children’s nonfiction guidebook.

To keep readers engaged, try varying your sentence length. Many sentences of the same length can become monotonous.

Suppose you are engaged in narrative writing, such as short stories or novels. In that case, you may want to use a more literary style and include metaphors and other figures of speech.

Certain types of narrative genres have different tonal expectations.

  • Readers of crime novels and thrillers usually expect punchier sentences and short, fast-paced chapters.
  • People who enjoy literary novels may prefer more complex structures and metaphorical language

As you write more, your writer’ voice’ will develop, and you will eventually have a recognizable style. One excellent piece of advice I was given when I began writing fiction was to accept my voice and enjoy it. Don’t force yourself to write a certain way because you think it’s superior—embrace your natural skills.

Set a Clear Goal

Before you begin writing, you should form a good idea of your aim. As an example, with this guide, my aim was to help writers improve their writing by giving them concrete rules to follow and by offering tools that would guide them.

Decide what the goal of your writing is going to be. Are you planning on writing to entertain, inform, or both? The message you want to convey to your audience is often a primary reason for your writing, so make sure you know what it is.

Craft an Elevator Pitch

An excellent way of understanding your goals in fiction is to write what’s known as an elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a few sentences that describe and summarize your novel that can be quickly shared. Even if you are not the kind of writer who likes to work from an outline, an elevator pitch is an invaluable way of cementing for yourself what you want to write. These pitches use compelling hooks to get people interested in reading the book

Some examples of elevator pitches:

  • A jaded cop goes missing while hunting for a serial killer, and his estranged daughter has to find him before the killer murders him. She fits the killer’s victim profile, and a deadly cat-and-mouse game begins.
  • A lonely divorcee takes pastrymaking classes to fill her empty life and becomes unexpectedly successful. While she rediscovers her joy, she falls in love with an old flame, only to discover he’s her rival in an upcoming bake-off.

A pitch should tell you a little about your protagonist and indicate stakes and tension. A good elevator pitch will also immediately indicate the genre. In the above examples, the first is a crime thriller, while the second is a romance.

Outline

Outlining your work can be divisive advice for fiction writers, but it’s just about essential when writing nonfiction. It’s also a constructive way of solidifying your aims and breaking down extensive work into manageable goals.

Outlining helps you build a structure for your piece, be it narrative or informational. In nonfiction, that structure will lead the reader clearly from idea to idea until it reaches a conclusion. Your message will be coherent, and it will be easy for readers to navigate to the parts with the information they need.

Steps for Outlining Nonfiction

When outlining nonfiction, an excellent way to organize your thoughts is to brainstorm headings connected to the main idea of your piece. In this early stage, let your mind run free and write down every idea you can think of.

Bullet points are a concise way of organizing these initial ideas. Once you have several subheadings and concepts jotted down, you can organize these notes into topic clusters that will form the architecture of your piece.

Once you’ve sorted your headings into a cohesive structure, you can add a topic sentence outlining the main idea of each paragraph. When you begin to write your first draft, you’ll use these topic sentences to add supporting arguments.

A simple outline can save you time when you get stuck and make the work less stressful. Many people find it much easier to work from an outline than to face an empty page. If you find you deviate from your outline, don’t worry. The outline is there to guide you, not restrict your writing.

Below is a basic example of a nonfiction outline for an essay of five paragraphs with three main points:

First Paragraph

  • Title
  • Introduction
  • Summary of the main idea of the piece or thesis statement

Second, Third, and Fourth Paragraphs

  • Heading
  • Topic Sentence expanding on the heading
  • 3-4 supporting sentences that explain or argue the case for the topic sentence.

Fifth Paragraph

  • Conclusion, restating the main points
  • Citations.

Steps for Outlining Fiction

Some writers prefer to have detailed plot outlines before beginning their novels. In contrast, others prefer to explore what happens as they write. Neither way is inherently better, but an outlined novel can be faster to write and redraft as you have a clearer idea of where you’re going.

Novel outlines don’t have to be detailed, with each scene in every chapter mapped out in advance—though if you prefer to work that way, your outline becomes more of a first draft.

An outline can also be as simple as a series of bullet points noting ideas, images, or main plot points you plan to include.

Several writing books use specific story beats and go into great detail regarding how to outline stories. Story Engineering and Save The Cat are some more popular outlining books.

As characters and plots develop, my novels often deviate significantly from my original outline. The outline exists only to jumpstart my writing and give me a blueprint for when I get stuck, and I feel free to follow a new and better idea if it comes up.

You can outline on paper or online, depending on which works better for you. If you find it easier to plan a novel when writing by hand, keep a journal that you can take with you. You never know when ideas might strike!

Brainstorming A Novel

Agatha Christie once said, “The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” Sometimes mindless tasks are the perfect way to let your brain have the space to develop plot ideas.

An excellent trick to jumpstart ideas when you are stuck with your novel outline is to ask ‘What if’ questions.

Examples:

  • What if Cinderella was an android?
  • What if houses could dream?
  • What if a killer AI took over a space station?

Editing Your Work

Even with a fantastic outline and excellent spelling and grammar abilities, your first draft will not be polished. Editing your work is the final polish that will take writing that is merely serviceable or good to excellent.

When editing, my advice is to tackle extensive structural edits first. Save correcting spelling and grammar, and fine-tuning the writing for later drafts.

Even with a detailed outline, it’s likely that you will still have to fix specific structural issues. This could mean tightening a saggy middle, trimming scenes that don’t serve a purpose or writing new scenes.

Sometimes you will have to move scenes, topics, or whole chapters to make the narrative flow better. The popular writers’ program Scrivener makes it easy to shift scenes and keep an overview of each scene’s draft stage.

Once I am happy with the final structure, I go through the work sentence by sentence in the line editing stage. This is the stage where I make sure the sentences flow, and there are no spelling or grammar errors.

One excellent trick I learned to catch mistakes is to read your work aloud. This tip is especially helpful in catching dialogue that is wooden or unrealistic.

Conclusion

Reading widely and practicing your writing regularly can quickly take your work from average to outstanding. Outlining and planning help organize your work and make it more structurally cohesive. Catch grammar and spelling errors using spellchecking software, but learn the rules, so you catch errors the software misses.

A final edit and proofreading will add an extra layer of polish to your writing and make it stand out.

References:

https://faculty.washington.edu/heagerty/Courses/b572/public/StrunkWhite.pdf

https://app.grammarly.com

https://www.upwork.com/resources/how-to-make-your-writing-better

https://www.sjsu.edu/writingcenter/docs/handouts/Essay%20Planning%20-%20Outlining.pdf

Alan Reiner
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