It’s probably been a long time since you sat in your high-school English class, poring over the MLA Handbook to make sure your writing was at least good enough to score a passing grade.
And even if you are a recent grad, writing isn’t everyone’s strong suit. But now, more than ever, we’re expected to write. More people want to be bloggers, thought leaders, and social media influencers. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of drivel out there.
As a writer and editor, I see many would-be authors making the same, common mistakes. These mistakes are not deal breakers though: they can be addressed and it’s probably not as painful as you think! So here are my top seven ways you can instantly up your writing game—complete with examples to help you put these tips into practice.
Tip 1: Keep it active! Use passive voice sparingly
Stick with me here, I’m not trying to cause a traumatic English class flashback. Scientific journal articles aside, there is almost never a good reason to use passive voice in your writing. Yet, so many people do it, perhaps because they are trying to sound more formal.
I won’t go into the weeds about why things sound so much better in active voice, but trust me, they do. Readability is important if you want your audience to follow your point. See the difference between the two sentences below?
Passive: Our products have been recommended by many experts.
Active: Many experts recommend our products.
Not only is choosing active voice a more concise way to communicate, it’s also the way we speak normally. Unless you prefer your writing to sound overly complicated, just go with natural language and use an active voice. You might be amazed how much you’re using passive voice without even realizing it and surprised at how much cleaner your writing is just by taking this one step.
Tip 2: Avoid repetitive wording
Does this look familiar?
We strive to be a customer-focused organization and we’re dedicated to making things right for you, our customers, when they experience a lack of customer-service.
This sentence is intentionally bad, but the main point I want to illustrate is the repetition of the word “customer.” I see this often, and sure, it’s not always this blatant, but even using the same word twice in one sentence—or repeatedly in subsequent sentences—can disrupt your readers’ flow.
So, pay attention to the words you choose. Mix it up! Grab a thesaurus and look for other words that mean the same thing. And (more on this later) read your sentences aloud to see how they sound. If something doesn’t sound like the way you’d speak, you probably don’t want to use it in writing either.
Tip 3: Say more with less
You’re not getting paid by the word, here. And I know how tempting it can be to wax poetic, but unless you’re actually a poet, I recommend keeping your writing short, sweet, and to the point. Of course, there’s always the risk of being too brief and not conveying the information you need. However, in my experience, people are more likely to go on too long and repeat points unnecessarily than to be too brief.
Not only should you reread your writing with an eye for “is each sentence necessary and adding value?” but you should also consider particular word choices when it comes to cutting to the chase. One way to instantly cut fluff from your writing is to eliminate words like really, rather, quite, very, that, and just. If your sentence makes sense without using these words, delete them! See what I did there?
Tip 4: Triple-check your word usage
You just hit “publish” on your latest LinkedIn blog and blasted it out to a thousand members of your professional network. And then you realize, with horror, that you used the word “peak” when you meant “pique” – or “affect” when you meant “effect.” Lucky for you, there’s an edit button. But you (the one who realized your mistake) are the lucky one. The unlucky ones are those who publish writings online, never knowing they have fallen victim to a case of mistaken word identity.
I get it! The English language is hard to master, with all of its inconsistencies and rules that are made to be broken. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I do know the value of checking your word usage, when in doubt, and sometimes even more importantly, when not in doubt! You might be convinced that your words are correct, but it never hurts to do a quick search and confirm before you hit send or publish.
Tip 5: Write, Rest, Write, Rest, Read
Even if you think you’re just sitting at your desk, the truth is, writing is hard work. Your eyes get tired. Your brain gets tired. Depending on how long you’re sitting, other parts of you may get tired. A key part of writing well is taking breaks and revisiting your work with fresh eyes. Sometimes that means a few minutes away; sometimes it means a few days. Regardless of the timeframe, I have never put down my work and revisited it later and not benefited from that break.
Stepping away from your writing is key to editing and improving your own work. And at some point in the writing process, you should also read your words aloud. You will be amazed how much you catch when you hear your writing instead of just reading it. I’m sure there’s some science behind this: my theory is using a different sense forces your brain to process the words differently than just reading them. Whatever the case, I’m not alone in my belief that reading your work aloud is a simple (and free) way to instantly improve your writing.
Tip 6: Ask for (and welcome) honest critiques
Once you’ve laid down your pen and completed your masterpiece, there’s one step on the way to publication that you won’t want to skip. That’s review and feedback from an outside source. Depending on what you’re writing, this source might be your boss, a colleague, an association member, a professional editor, or any number of these (and more). This tip might sound simple but it’s probably one of the hardest for most people. Hopefully, you’re happy with your work at this point, so the last thing you want is someone to rip it apart! If you’re lucky, you’ve got people you trust, who want to see you succeed, and who’ll offer valuable, constructive criticism. Even with the best delivery, hearing about your imperfections isn’t necessarily “fun.” Don’t let the fear of criticism stop you from taking this vital step towards achieve the best possible end-product. Sometimes (as much as I hate to admit it) the most painful critiques can be the ones that teach you how to get better.
Tip 7: Hire a professional
Sometimes, writing just isn’t your thing. I’m the first to admit I can’t analyze numeric data to save my life! So, I happily enlist math-brained professionals when I need their assistance. The same goes for writing: there are plenty of people out there who would love to help you turn your ideas into quality content. You don’t have to be a jack-of-all-trades, and you’ll probably benefit more in the long run by focusing on your true talents instead of trying to force yourself to write compelling copy.
You also never know how much you’ll learn from a professional. It could be the help you need to find your voice and jumpstart your own writing.
Remember, it’s a busy world out there. You’re competing for your audience’s attention against literally millions of other sources of information. If your content isn’t easy to read, clear, fluent, and possibly also entertaining, you’re going to lose your audience’s attention amid the information overload of modern life.
I hope that you can put these tips into action and instantly up your writing game. If you’re still looking for more resources, I recommend the classics: The Elements of Style and Eats, Shoots & Leaves.