5 tips for clear, crisp and excellent writing

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Writing in English is tough. Let’s get that out of the way. If English is your second language, it can be tougher. We’re not talking about writing novels or poetry here; we’re referring to simple writing tasks that you need to do at school or work. They could include essays, reports, presentations or even short emails.

It’s hard but it’s not impossible. Just like any other skill, you need to practice to write well. If it’s a daily struggle for you, here are five tips that can help you:

  1. Keep the purpose clear in your mind

    First things first: what is your main purpose? To inform? Educate? Entertain or impress? Having this in mind will set your focus. It will help you prioritize on the message, tone, and style of the piece.

    For example, if you’re writing a memo or an email, your priority is to get the message across quickly and it has to be easy to understand. This is why you go straight to the point and place the most important message in the first paragraph. You also use simple, straightforward language.

    But what if you want to write to communicate AND impress at the same time? We want our letters and reports to inform and impress employers or bosses. This is when you can use technical terms and buzzwords. But remember, never sacrifice the clarity of the message for frills. Instead, impress by using clear and simple words. For example, why write:

    The organization will provide interested parties further notice upon availability of the professional development sessions.

    when you can write:
    We will tell you when to come in for training.

    (Example adapted from The Plain Language Passcard, Literacy Partners of Manitoba).

  2. Again, simple is good!

    Novelist Ernest Hemingway was a strong advocate of simple and clear writing. He hated flowery prose and adjectives. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author followed four rules in writing:

    1. Use short sentences
    2. Use short paragraphs
    3. Use vigorous English (use the most precise and most descriptive words)
    4. Be positive, not negative (describe what something is, not what it isn’t). For example: instead of “inexpensive” write “affordable” or instead of “unclear” say it’s “confusing”.

    (Ernest Hemingway’s 5 tips for writing well, Brian Clark, Copyblogger).

    In any kind of writing, simple does not equate to dumbed down or boring. I mean, have you read The Old Man and the Sea or any Hemingway novel for that matter?

    Here are 5 more tips to keep your writing tight for school or work from EngVid:

    Need more help in keeping your writing brief and to the point? Try the Hemingway app.

  3. Think about your audience

    Knowing your audience will help immensely. Just knowing that you are writing for other people (not for yourself) will help you make better writing choices.

    If you are writing for your boss and colleagues, you may use industry jargon because they will understand them (even prefer them). But if you are writing for a more general audience, think twice about using technical terms. If you’re writing a report for school, it will be valuable to know if your professor prefers multipage reports or short ones. And if you’re preparing a presentation, know if your audience will be able to appreciate humour before you start your talk with a joke. Writing for busy people? You know that you need to place the more important information first. Knowing your audience allows you to organize your message and plan your content, style and the length of your piece.

  4. Check some templates/samples

    If you can’t imagine how your manuscript should look like, get inspiration from others. Go online and search for some templates or examples of the type of writing you need to do. Get ideas. Note the structure and flow of writing. See how the writer connects one idea to the next. Notice the tone and style.

    Be careful about copying too closely. Never plagiarize!

  5. Reread and proofread

    Never send out written work without reviewing it first. A simple misspelled word can ruin an entire piece and make all your hard work go to waste. To review your work systematically, read Tips when proofreading and editing your work. Or ask a friend to review it for you.

Want to continually improve your writing skills?

There is really no shortcut to writing well than to study and practice. The first step is to get down to the basics. Vocabulary and spelling are the foundations of good writing. To do this, you must:

  1. Read – and read a lot!
    • Reading helps you increase your vocabulary.
    • It will make you familiar with spelling and variations of how some words are spelled.
    • It will make you familiar with the patterns of writing – how the words flow in a sentence.
    • It will help you improve your sentence construction.

    All these benefits plus you get entertained and learn something new.

  2. Practice, practice, practice
    • Participate in online forums or groups. Ask questions or comment online.
    • Try online journaling. Here are some suggested tools: 5 killer online journaling tools you should try out, Hannah Braime, LifeHack.org.
    • If you’re not into online tools, you can always get a notebook and pen.
    • Get a pen pal (email or snail mail).
  3. Get online help or find a mentor

Sources: How to improve your writing by yourself, Shivali Nayak and Allison Chan, Learn English; Five home-based activities to improve your writing, Australia Plus, Learn English; 5 simple ways to improve your written English, Wil, English Live. All accessed December 20, 2017.

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