8 Easy Ways to Improve Your Writing Style
It may seem unfair, but much of the time what you say doesn’t matter nearly so much as how you say it.
Think about a really good speech by a politician or motivational speaker. While they’re talking, everything sounds great – it’s compelling, it makes sense, you’re nodding in agreement, you’re standing up to cheer. Then half an hour later you’re telling a friend about what they said and it all starts to sound rather more like tired cliches and platitudes that fall flat when you’ve forgotten the precise nuances of phrasing that, when you first heard them, made you want to punch the air.
The magic is not in the content of what they’re saying, but in the style. And while learning to write in a stylistically brilliant way is a long, hard endeavour, there are a few very simple rules that you can follow to take your writing up to the next level.
1. Use fewer adverbs
Usually given as a tip to stop amateur novelists overwhelming themselves in purple prose, cutting adverbs can also be of use to writers of essays, articles, blog posts and almost anything else. Adverbs can be a crutch to fill up space when you have 1,000 words to say but a 2,000 word essay to write (and under those circumstances, they can be unavoidable). Often, though, they’re a hangover from primary school days of being advised to “make your writing sound more complicated” – when “Peter ran quickly to school” was a great lexical improvement on “Peter ran to school” – and writers simply haven’t realised that ditching them when they’re not adding anything to the sentence would be a great improvement.
The usual advice in creative writing classes is to ditch the adverb in favour of a stronger verb – so not “Lucy said loudly” but “Lucy shouted”. When equivalent situations occur in academic writing, the same advice applies. Even when there isn’t an obvious substitution, simply deleting the adverb may be advisable – consider the difference between “Tolkien asserts forcefully that Beowulf should not be treated as a historical source” and “Tolkien asserts that Beowulf should not be treated as a historical source”. The former implies an emotional tone to Tolkien’s words that may not have been there; only include the adverb if you’re sure you’re happy with the full implications of its meaning.
It’s amazing the difference the order can make,
When you’re writing a poem and make a mistake,
If you put the bad rhyme first and the good rhyme after,
Your readers will praise you to the rafters.
We’re not talking about a finely wrought sonnet to your beloved here; this is about the kind of doggerel above that we’re all sometimes called upon to produce, whether it’s for a children’s play or an attempt at a humorous birthday card message. If you’re not a very good poet, and you often find yourself struggling to make a rhyme work, put the word you had to force to rhyme in the first line, and the good rhyme in second – like so:
When you’re writing a poem and make a mistake,
It’s amazing the difference the order can make,
Your readers will praise you to the rafters,
If you put the bad rhyme first and the good rhyme after.
It’s never going to be a great poem – but see how much better that small change makes it sound?
3. Varied sentences are good; long sentences are not
It’s another one of those primary-school hangovers that many of us never get over. Think about how primary-school children write: it’s all short sentences. I got up at seven this morning. Then I had some breakfast. Then I walked to school. Then I had Maths. I don’t like Maths. Then I had English. That was better… no wonder most people get the idea at that age that long sentences are good, and short sentences are bad. When we pause to think about it, we know it isn’t true, and yet it’s still a practice that we slip into: trying to make our writing sound better by making our sentences longer.
Had that primary-school child been a more skilled writer, they might have written: “I got up at seven this morning. After I had some breakfast, I walked to school. I had Maths, which I don’t like, then English. That was better.” Two of the sentences are still just as short as in the original, while the rest are longer – and it’s the variety that makes it so much more readable.
Do you struggle with overlong sentences? Microsoft Word’s spellchecker (and most others) will allow you to set a maximum sentence length, with longer sentences being treated as grammatical errors. Set it to something quite restrictive – say 25 or 30 words – and watch your writing improve.
4. Weaponise your spellchecker
The above recommendation is part of a wider plan for improving your writing. Modern word processors have highly adaptable spellcheckers. You can set them to autocorrect the typos you make the most often, or highlight as incorrect words that you overuse. There’s no need to stick to the standard configuration of the dictionary. If you care deeply about the distinction between en- and em-dashes, then you can make sure that they get highlighted too.
A good way to do this is to add errors to the spellchecker as they occur when you’re writing, rather than trying to sit down and think of all the mistakes you make regularly in one go. You might also spot things that aren’t true errors – like using the word ‘significant’ six times in two paragraphs – but that could still handle getting the spellchecker treatment.
A standing concern over spellcheckers, dating back to when they first appeared, is that then no one will learn the correct way to do things because their mistakes will always be corrected for them. This is certainly a convincing argument concerning autocorrect (as you don’t even see the mistakes you make) but less so for spellcheckers, where green and red squiggly lines will remind you painfully of the things you persistently get wrong.
5. Consistency is your friend
Sometimes errors are not absolute, but ones that you create yourself. Consider the following paragraph:
“Participants were shown a PowerPoint Presentation. On the first page of the PPT, they were shown a Rorschach inkblot. Some of them recognised the test immediately, but as they had been asked to remain silent, they did not alert the other participants. On the second slide of the powerpoint, there was an Escher painting of *something*. More of the participants recognised this, and some stated afterwards that they identified a connection between the two images. The third screen of the PPT presentation showed the ‘grey bar’ optical illusion…”
It isn’t so much wrong as subtly irritating to read. The writer hasn’t decided how they want to refer to a PowerPoint presentation, nor figured out a consistent word for ‘slide’. In a particular kind of reader, this will produce a sense of having an itch they can’t reach. For their sake, pay attention to this kind of consistency issue. If need be, you can tell your spellchecker that only one of the variations on PowerPoint presentation is correct, and that the others need changing.
6. Rephrase to escape a tangle
Phrasal verbs are one of the key challenges of the English language for learners, and they aren’t straightforward for native speakers either. A phrasal verb is a verb that always takes a particular preposition – for instance deal with (a problem). For learners, the trouble is remembering which preposition is correct, for instance whether it should be deal with or deal to or something else. That’s just a matter of memorisation – painful, but straightforward.
For native speakers, the usual difficulty might be more complex. Think about the sentence, “the councillor asserted that this was not in her purview; frankly, that it was not her problem to deal with.” There’s the half-remembered rule that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition. So a quick rewrite produces, “the councillor asserted that this was not in her purview; frankly, that it was not her problem with which to deal.”
This is a sentence that is obviously horrendous, but many students will stick with it all the same. The answer is not to dither about where to put the word “with”, but simply to rephrase entirely. If it’s a direct quote, quote it accordingly and don’t worry about the councillor’s grammar, so: “The councillor asserted, ‘it is not in my purview; frankly, it is not my problem to deal with’.” If not, rephrase for a less troublesome word: “the councillor asserted that this was not in her purview; frankly, that it was not her problem to address.” A complete rewrite – “the councillor denied that the problem was her responsibility” – might also be preferable to an awkward tangle of words.
7. Dare to remove your formatting
There’s a clear sign of a student who is NOT confident in their ability to express themselves using words alone, and that is an obnoxious superfluity of formatting to highlight words that didn’t really need highlighting. Briefly enjoyable for the impression it gives of reading something written by a hysterical Victorian, any text with lots of italics, underlines and bold becomes tiresome and painful to read pretty quickly. The extreme version of this is the writer who uses lots of exclamation marks! This makes their writing seem exciting! Or hyperactive! Or ultimately, like a puppy repeatedly dragging its lead to an uninterested owner!!
Unless you are writing the script for a pantomime, there is seldom a genuine need for an exclamation mark. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that exclamation marks are like laughing at your own jokes. That doesn’t seem quite right, but they are a bit like begging other people to laugh: my writing is interesting! Honest! Look how enthusiastic my punctuation is! Be brave and delete them.
As for all those bolds and underlines, the keyboard combination ctrl + space bar removes all formatting from highlighted text in Microsoft Word. If your writing is good, the bits you want to emphasise should be emphasised anyway. If your writing is bad, a profusion of italics isn’t going to fool anyone.
8. Don’t be scared of shorter paragraphs
This is one to treat with a sense of caution. You don’t want to end up using the paragraph length of a tabloid journalist, and a long series of short paragraphs can defeat the whole point of using paragraphs to group information into organised chunks. But at the same time, the quest to write in a complex manner can lead to vast and unwieldy paragraphs.
In particular, following the secondary-school rule of each paragraph needing to contain a point, an example of that point, and an explanation of the point and example can lead to paragraphs that are scarily massive. The point, example, explanation approach is a good one, but don’t be afraid to cut the paragraph halfway through if it’s becoming too long to be readable. You might worry that you should keep everything on a single point in the same paragraph – but you probably didn’t notice that the start of this paragraph came halfway through a point. It isn’t ideal – perhaps being more concise would have been better – but it’s an improvement on something unreadably long.
The traditional way to end any article on writing tips is in the manner of George Orwell: “break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous”. Enjoy your long, italic- and adverb-filled paragraphs if you can still make them read well, by all means: these are guidelines to help those who are struggling, not rules to constrain those who are already confident and doing well.
That is, except for putting the bad rhyme first. That really does make all the difference.