For my job, I improve people’s writing.
In the past 18 months, I’ve edited more than 300 papers. And I find myself making the same corrections on almost every paper.
They are not complex changes. They are simple edits to make the language stronger. But they prevent the author from sounding like an idiot and instead help the author sound like an intelligent scholar.
I want to share those common problems with you so that you can start writing like the intelligent person you are.
So, if you are looking to improve your writing, here are 12 simple ways to do it:
1. Stop yelling!
Get rid of exclamation points. Exclamation points make you sound like you are: a. angry, b. pedantic, c. selling something, or d. overdramatic. And what do we do with angry, pedantic, overdramatic, sales people? We stop listening to them.
2. Don’t start a sentence with “as.”
It sounds lazy and is sure to make your reader bored. No one wants to continue reading a sentence starting with “as.”
3. Don’t write that.
There is a plague going around the writing world. It even hits me from time to time. It’s the plague of “that”s. “That”s are everywhere, like gnats in northern Minnesota. They are annoying, and we are better off without them. “That” should be used only to distinguish something against other things (“I was bit by the dog that barked”) or to prevent confusion (“I told him on September 2nd we would have a party” vs. “I told him that on September 2nd we would have a party”). If it’s not needed, swat it dead.
4. Define this.
When “this” is used as a pronoun, the noun it is standing in for should be clear. If it’s not, make it clear. Whenever you write “this,” ask yourself if it’s clear what “this” stands for.
5. Make it simple.
Flowery language isn’t impressive. However, saying exactly what you mean in the fewest words possible is impressive. If you can say it in 30 words, don’t use 31. If you can use a simple word, don’t use a fancy word.
6. Don’t be like Old Country Buffett.
Which is to say, don’t be excessive. Specifically, with your metaphors. There are few rhetorical devices more powerful than a good metaphor, but when a good thing (like food) is overused (like at Old Country Buffet), no one has a good time. Only use metaphors when they profoundly enhance what you are trying to say.
7. Cut the descriptions.
Less describing, more action. Descriptions are easy to write. It’s much harder to tell a story than to describe something. If a description isn’t important, don’t bore your reader with it.
8. Furthermore, take it easy.
On transitions. Nothing says “Yes, I’m still talking” better than too many transitions (e.g., furthermore, moreover, in addition, also, etc.). Transitions can be useful to connect ideas, but too many unnecessary ones make a text boring. They make the reader wonder if you will ever stop talking. Use sparingly.
9. Know your audience.
I work for an academic entomology journal, so the papers I edit are written by insect experts for insect experts. One time an author spent two paragraphs explaining how insects are everywhere, citing multiple third grade textbooks. I deleted these paragraphs because they made the author sound like an idiot. How you write and what you write about should change with your audience. Knowing who your audience is and adjusting your style and content accordingly are essential steps to writing well.
10. Stay on topic
Born a ramblin’ man? Then it’s high time you stopped. Don’t ramble. Stay on topic, stay on point.
11. Don’t use “very” or “really.”
Or any other adverb, for that matter. Adverbs are fluff. Only use one when necessary. As Howard Ogden said, “Adverbs are guilty until proven innocent.”
Read a sentence after you write it. After you’re done writing, read everything you wrote. Correct any typos or confusing sentences. Good writing is the product of many drafts.
There is a big difference between weak writing and strong writing, but there is a short bridge between the two. It doesn’t take much to improve your writing and stop sounding like an idiot. Following these 12 simple tips is a great place to start.