Whether the words flow from your fingers or whether you struggle to string together more than a few sentences, here are several good habits that can help you tailor your writing, take your style up a notch, and avoid mistakes—all keys to effective writing.
1. Know Your Topic—And Your Audience
For most good writing, a key first step is research. This doesn’t just apply to academic writing—being informed about your subject matter and your audience is important no matter what your subject is. Even a half hour of online research can go a long way toward avoiding mistakes or incorrect assumptions, and it will give authority to your writing.
For instance, if you’re writing a cover letter for a job or school application, make sure you’ve done your homework on what the job is or why the program appeals to you. Then use what you learn to offer specifics: “Your business school’s international experience program is of interest to me because I hope to someday work in digital marketing for an international company.” Adding in these types of specifics will not only impress your reader, it makes for more interesting writing—vague equals dull.
As a bonus, doing your research will make the writing process itself much easier and may actually save you time. Instead of struggling to crank out flowery language, the words will flow because you’ve educated yourself and truly have something valuable to say on the topic.
2. Trim the Fat
Usually, the first version of any sentence you write can benefit from some trimming. Show that you respect your reader’s time and his or her need for clarity by putting thought into whether each of your words serves a purpose.
Watch for words that are frequent space-wasting culprits. For example:
● Very, really, actually: You really actually never need these words.
● In order to: Just “to” usually does the job.
● Currently, now, at this point: Your sentence should already be in present tense if you’re using one of these words. For instance, “I am currently a graduate student in biology” = “I am a graduate student in biology.”
Say you are preparing a memo for your boss, and you write this: “The next step coming up in the project is going to be a survey of likely customers about the most popular colors they prefer.” Nothing’s really grammatically wrong here, but it’s definitely wordy. A second pass through that sentence to trim the fat could save you nearly a dozen words: “The project’s next step is a survey of likely customers about color preferences.” Your boss will understand your point more clearly and appreciate the time savings. Score.
3. Shout It Out!
... or just mumble to yourself in the privacy of your office or bedroom. Either way, the point is that reading out loud what you’ve written will help you spot issues with the flow or logic that may not be obvious on paper. This is a great way to identify run-on sentences, problems with subject-verb agreement, and awkward phrasing in general. It can also help you eliminate jargon and replace those words with more natural language. Written language may be more formal than spoken, but if it doesn’t make sense or flow easily when read out loud, you may need to simplify your wording.
Even better is to find another person to read your writing out loud to you. Everyone needs an editor, and having another good writer read over your words is a great way to catch problems large and small.
Lora Wegman is a contributing writer for Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement.
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