In my line of work, I come into daily contact with all sorts of writing—ranging from the terrific to the truly atrocious. (My own lies somewhere in the murky middle.)
Okay, so maybe not everyone is meant to be great writer. But almost anyone can become an effective writer … and that’s more important. Knowing how to persuade through the written word, express important ideas, and convince people to think your way is a powerful advantage to have.
Effective writing isn’t all that hard to achieve. All it takes is practice, a positive attitude, and the development of a few basic habits. So as much as I hate to jump on the “7 Habits” bandwagon, I’m afraid I must. Here we go … ??
1. Begin with one, strong idea—and stick to it.
You can make yourself a better writer almost immediately by avoiding the biggest mistake people make: They try to cram too much into their writing.
Whether you’re writing a letter, a short memo, a speech, a long essay, or even a non-fiction book, you’ll do best if you base it on a single, strong and interesting idea.
2. Write about what you know.
Ideally, the people who read your work should come out of the experience smarter—not dumber. Stick to topics you’re familiar with, and always verify your facts. When you have to write about something you don’t know well, interview an expert—or research until you are an expert.
3. Make an outline.
Most bad writing is simply the result of careless or insufficient thinking. The best way to avoid this is to make a basic outline first before you actually write. Once you have the “skeleton” of your piece, you’ll find it much easier to stay on track.
4. State your main idea in your first paragraph.
Never assume your reader will read the whole piece through to the end (especially when you’re writing a letter). If you have something important to say, make sure you say it at the beginning. Support it with specifics in the succeeding paragraphs, and then tie everything up nicely at the end.
5. Remember: LESS IS MORE.
More often than not, a smaller, simpler word will serve you better than its high-faluting, multi-syllabic cousin. The primary purpose of writing is not to impress. It’s to communicate. Wherever you can, use the simplest, clearest words possible, and cut out unnecessary words and phrases.
6. Clean up your work.
Whether you’re writing an essay for school, a business letter, or even just an email to a friend, make it a habit to “clean it up” before sending it off. Here are three foolproof techniques you can use polish your work:
- Proofread every sentence—from the bottom up. Start with the last sentence and work backwards. You’re more likely to catch errors this way, because when you’re reading backwards, it’s much more difficult for your eye to jump ahead. (Important note: remember to read sentence-by-sentence, not word-by-word, or you really won’t understand anything.)
- Put it away for a day or two. When you go back to it later, you’ll see it with fresh eyes and notice things you never saw before. Typographical errors. Over-wordy sentences. Things you thought were perfect, that you now hate with a passion.
- Read your piece out loud. If you find yourself catching your breath, your sentences are too long. CUT. If some of the phrases or sentences sound awkward, or roll off the tongue funny, REVISE until they sound right. And lastly, if you’re torn between perfect grammar and something that sounds right, just go for what sounds right.
7. Read good writing.
The books and magazines you read influence your writing much more than you think. If you’d like to improve your writing skills, read well-written pieces – even copy them out by hand, if you’d like to go that far. You’ll see the difference in your writing style within just a few days.
The learning process might seem tedious at times, but it’s well worth it. A skill for writing is one you can carry with you no matter where you go or what you do … and it will serve you well for as long as you live.