Writing is not a superpower, but being good at it might help you with anything you do. It gives your thoughts a lot more flow, it organises your ideas, and most importantly, it helps you better communicate your messages.
You might have a natural talent for writing. But what makes great writers great is the candid thought that they could always write better. Rumour has it that Hemingway used to discard every 90 pages for the 91 he wrote.
The good news is that to get better, you don’t need to keep trying to write like Hemingway. But you can rapidly improve your writing by exercising the following tips. These tips can transform any writing you produce into a persuasive and consistent piece of work.
1. Sentence Lenght
Short sentences are a bliss. As a reader, you don’t have to work hard to get to the core of the message.
Whenever you write a sentence, think of a person reading it back to you. With this in mind, any sentence longer than 20 words becomes a badly written script. And a badly written script means you’ll lose focus, because it is either boring or confusing.
But whether the script becomes boring or confusing has more to do with your attention span. No matter if in the role of a reader or a listener.
Our attention is more like a strobe. One moment sharp, the other it wanders off into the abyssal darkness creating an unclear picture.
What you want with your writing, is to provide enough information exactly for the sharp moments of your readers’ attention.
That’s why full stops can help you say more than an overcomplicated long sentence. Stick to 20-25 words per sentence and your writing will fit exactly to the attentive moments your reader is physically able to commit to.
2. Avoid complicated words and Zombie nouns
Can anything be more complicated than creating a noun out of a verb? When you do that you supress all that’s alive in a verb, and you create unnecessarily complicated words.
This sentence is hard to read exactly because of all the zombie nouns (nominalizations*). By avoiding nominalizations*, you can draw a lively picture of what is happening in the sentence and in your story. Let your sentences live.
Nominalisations, or Zombie Words, may be useful in some instances. Mostly when you already introduce the living sentence and want to refer to it in a new one. In this case the introduction of new information can refer back to the introduction of the old information.
But in general, try and avoid words of unnecessary pomposity. Words that sound smart, don’t make you nor your reader smarter. Quite often they have the opposite effect; they overwhelm. And an overwhelmed reader either gets bored or confused, which is a good reason to abandon your writing.
*NOMINALIZATION – a verb transformed into a noun, commonly by using the suffix -ion, -ency, -ity, -ment
3. Passive vs. Active
Another way to confuse your reader is to avoid telling who is responsible for action in your sentence. In other words, using passive constructions rather than actively involving the actor in your story can be a nuisance.
This commonly happens in academia either by a) students not knowing their facts, or by b) writers being vague about who claimed what. Although in science, writers try to remain objective by using passive constructions, it can distract, challenge and under-inform the readers.
e.g. a) Planting trees has shown to be ineffective. b) Research has been done to prove that.
But who did the research – the writer or somebody else? Who is taking the responsibility for action?
Passive constructions are confusing. Imagine reading a few more lines of passive and your attention span is out wandering off again.
How to write better?
Follow the Good with Words: Writing and Editing Specialisation on Coursera
Writing. Editing. Persuasion. Learn the mechanics and strategy of effective communication.
4. Less is more
Avoid clutter. Steve Jobs did that and the world loved it.
Just like Apple removed the on/off buttons from their devices, eliminate the words you don’t need in your sentence. Then apply this to your paragraphs, chapters, and articles.
5. Review and Edit
Hemingway used to trash most of his writing for a reason. It simply wasn’t good enough at first. Having to review and edit does not make anyone a bad writer. But not reviewing and not editing your work often does.
Once you finish writing, come back to it the next day and read it out loud for yourself. Can you follow the words and sentences without losing the flow? If someone reads that to you, would you get confused or bored?
If so, chances are you might have to restructure a few sentences. Start with checking with the most obvious; go back to the first tip, check for zombie nouns, and change passive into active, where possible.
Although editing is not proofreading, checking for punctuation is not a bad idea. Think of punctuation as traffic signs, a guidance for your readers. Having too many grammatical errors might make your reader confused and not want to navigate your sentences (ever) again.
6. Garbage in, Garbage Out
You are what you eat and you write what you read.
Read good writing. Cluttered sentences, with extensive nominalisations and passive structures are not it. But does that all seem too familiar? William Zinser points out that complex, hard to read structures usually occur in proportion to education and rank.
Look at an average scientific article, or research book. They are hefty. They are often loaded with important details about new breakthroughs, but they are a terrible read.
Read good writing to become a better writer.