What are some simple ways to improve my writing?
If you’re like me, you have a love-hate relationship with writing. And if you’re really like me, it’s not just a love-hate relationship; you straight up have a tumultuous love affair going on. That’s why I’ve listed some simple ways to improve your writing below.
- Know your audience
- Lose extraneous words and phrases
- Make your descriptions concise
- Have a beginning, middle, and end that fit together
- Give yourself limits on the words and content you can use
- Use the thesaurus to improve tone and brevity
- Read other publications
- Practice writing as much as you can
- Get notes from trusted sources
- Revise after you get notes
Your writing is important to you, because you want to sound educated, clever, and interesting. But also, writing is time-consuming, difficult, and sometimes, it seems pointless. I mean, who hasn’t gotten a few rejection letters? Haven’t we all watched as an unseasoned writer was celebrated? At that point, it’s like, why even try?
It’s okay. Keeping trying. Trying is important, because you want to feel good about your work and continue to get better. Below are ten ways to help you do just that.
Know your audience
Whether you’re writing fiction, blog posts, or important emails, knowing your audience is vital to your final product. Think about your readers; picture reading your piece to them. What would they do? How would they react? Consider the kind of representation that appeals to them.
Lose extraneous words and phrases
Consider the following sentences. Which sounds better?
“Anna is running, because she wants to find Henry.”
“Anna runs, wildly searching for Henry.”
The second sentence is not only concise, but it communicates more. Any time you can lose linking verbs (i.e. is, was, seems, feels, etc.) the better your writing will be for it.
Consider a way to communicate your characters’ desires in a way that shows us rather than telling us. (Cliche but true!) You can see above that Anna’s desire to find Henry is replaced with her search for him. Her search is indicative of her desire to find.
I should note that I use the adverb “wildly” to illustrate the search itself. There is a school of thought which discourages the use of adverbs, as they can contribute to lazy writing. If you are actively showing rather than telling, you should not often run into this issue.
As an exercise, try writing as few adverbs as possible. Instead of saying, “Anna wildly searches for Henry,” maybe explain her search. Does Anna run so fast she trips and falls? Does she overturn all her furniture in an effort to find Henry? Consider the pace of the scene and how your sentences fit together. See what works for you.
Consider the two following descriptions.
“Maria’s eyes sparkled like rushing water, but her gaze chilled Andrew. Her dark hair lay past her shoulders, and her skin looked soft. She had a delicate face, with full lips and a slight nose. Maria’s dress was made of pine-colored velvet and stopped at her ankles. The buttons along the center were made of pure gold. Light pink scars lined her muscular arm. There were three scars in total. Andrew wondered why she had them. Who had given her these scars? How long had she had them?”
Okay, where did you stop reading? Where did you get bored? This passage has so much information (much of it unnecessary) that it serves as a distraction.
What do we need to know? For the purpose of this exercise, we’ll say Maria’s scars are essential to the story. Andrew was chilled by her gaze, which seems important, especially if he is a central character.
Depending on the context, any of the provided information could matter. However, for the sake of our exercise, let’s say her looks are unimportant. Once we’ve prioritized, we can rewrite.
“Maria’s gaze met Andrew’s. He fought the urge to turn away, despite the cold feeling that washed through him. He focused instead on the buttons along her dress, crafted of real gold. But something else caught his eye—three scars along her arm.”
What did I cut?
- Cliches, such as Maria’s sparking eyes and stereotypical facial features
- Unnecessary questions—We’re all wondering about the scars, so there’s no need to say it.
- Physical features—I only included features necessary to Maria’s introduction. If I want to include more of her features later, I can (preferably through her actions.)
Have a beginning, middle, and end
Your beginning, middle, and end don’t have to have to come in chronological order, but they need to exist, nonetheless. Here’s a little tidbit about each:
Your beginning should be brief but catching. Don’t promise more than you can deliver. If you spend 10 pages illustrating the setting, characters, and plot, the piece should prove to your audience that the time they invested was worth it. Your middle will have to be much longer than those 10 pages of introduction.
Everyone’s heard of the rising action and climax. You know what to do. Slowly build conflict until you reach the biggest conflict of all, the climax. No matter how incredible your plot is, make sure your characters are driving it. A story about a heist is cool, but no one will care if the characters aren’t dynamic, dependable, or interesting.
The action falls here, and then there is a resolution—or not. There is no rule that says you must resolve the conflict, but the story will probably be better if you include a resolution. Why did you write this piece? What should your audience be left with? These are all things to consider as your piece ends. And remember—even a heavily worked beginning and end won’t make up for a so-so middle. (Trust me, I’ve tried.)
Give yourself limits
We’ve already touched a few pitfalls writers should avoid, like using cliches and relying on linking verbs (or even adverbs) too often. How about content, though?
I had a professor who gave us a long, long list of topics we couldn’t write about, including fantastical creatures and bodily fluids. I’m not saying you have to avoid these things necessarily; obviously there is a market for supernatural characters, fantasy, and even bloodshed. However, giving yourself limits on what content you can write and which words you can use—it makes you write harder.
Try avoiding these words in your next piece:
- Vampire (for all you fantasy writers!)
If you need to use the above concepts, find an interesting way to do so while still avoiding the words.
Use the thesaurus, and use it wisely
Thesauruses are amazing. Really amazing. For someone like me, who always has trouble finding the right word, online thesauruses are sort of a dream. These are also great when you have a wordy phrase in your writing. For example, instead of “slowing down,” you might “stall.”
You may want to keep in mind, too, that people like to read things that sound relatable. Impressive words are nice but not always necessary. Use your thesaurus wisely.
Read as much as you can: blogs, books, articles, whatever. For me, this is so much easier said than done. I have always had a difficult time reading the types of pieces I love to write. (Why is that?) Even if you’re a great writer—the greatest—it’s true that writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. For most of us, anyway. If you have a hard time reading, take the advice a professor gave me; read 5 pages a day. This is doable and totally worth it.
Here comes the hard part. Actually writing. Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to practice writing. Writing about dreams, journaling, keeping a little notebook for story ideas—all ways to keep your mind fresh.
Finally, give yourself a deadline. Let me first say I am terrible at personal deadlines. If I need to finish something, someone has to depend on me. So, if you’re like me, you may consider signing up for a class, finding a writing meetup, or soliciting a friend who will hold you to a due date.
Get notes from a trusted source
Once you have written up a draft you love, (yay!) submit it to a friend who will red pen all over it (boo). This seems difficult, but it is so important. Criticism will strengthen your work. You don’t have to accept every critique, but if the notes are from a trusted source, the criticism is worth considering.
Once you get the criticism, you may be so over the piece you don’t want to revise. Do it anyway. Your piece will improve, and I guarantee you’ll like it more.
Some notes: You are more than what you write, but your words can strengthen your image. Write in a voice that is sincere, and remember, all rules are made to be broken sometimes.