Francis Bacon famously said that, “reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.”
Unfortunately for most of us, getting our ideas across on paper is a challenge. Luckily, there are things we can do improve our writing skill and it is always a skill we can continue to improve with practice.
Here are some tips on how to become a brilliant wordsmith.
- Master your Verbs
Verbs can be one of the most potent weapons in your arsenal, especially if you know how to use them. Consider the following sentence from Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.
“Up ahead of them, Bod saw a statue swing up, and another two creatures came catapulting out into this crimson-skied world, just like the ones that carried Bod.”
Gaiman used “catapulting” as an intransitive verb here to an interesting effect. It’s not very common but it’s also not a very fancy word. There are some writers who admittedly stay away from fancy words. Instead, they use a commonly-used verb in an unfamiliar way for greater impact.
- Don’t be Afraid of the Dash
The em-dash (–) is one of the most useful punctuation marks that a writer can use. Sadly, people rarely use it for some reason.
Here’s how you can use the em-dash to punch up your style:
- Use the em-dash in place of parentheses. If you want to capture the reader’s attention but in a less formal way, then the em-dash is the way to go.
Upon discovering the mistakes – all 203 of them – the marketing exec pulled out all the flyers.
- Use the em-dash to place emphasis or give additional information.
She enjoyed a glass of red wine – but preferred to eat white grapes.
- Use the em-dash in place of a colon.
After months of intense pressure, the students finally received their grades – they all passed.
- Use the punctuation mark to indicate missing parts of a word, whether it’s intentional or not.
The note showed signs of water damage, but they could make out the words: “Was ne–ly ki-l-d by Wa-ly Sm-t-“.
- Curtail the use of “it” and the verb “to be.”
The verb “to be” just makes getting your ideas across a lengthier process. Try to minimise the use of the “it” (object) and “is” (verb) pattern when writing and you’ll notice a big difference in your writing.
- Write First; Check Later
Some people want their essay to be perfect from the start. However, making sure that every sentence is perfect will just slow things down and threaten the narrative cohesion of your work. Finish that initial draft first and then go over it later. Yes, it will take longer, but the extra effort is worth it. This method will ensure that you won’t lose your train of thought. And who knows, that second revision could make all the difference between your work being good or great.
- Consider your Words wisely, Think Accuracy and EfficiencyA good writer will know what word to use to accurately convey a feeling or an idea. Conversely, the writer also understands that using long words doesn’t automatically make a sentence better. For example, why inflict a long word like “utilise” on the reader when “use” works just as well. On the other hand, while “beautiful” is a good word to use, “elegant” or “resplendent” conveys a particular idea more accurately.
- Craft an Outline for your Ideas First
It’s a good idea to make an outline of your ideas first before you start writing. This will help save time and will also aid you in figuring out whether each section or chapter is getting your main message across.
Quickly jotting down your ideas on a spare piece of paper will help you see the big picture. This way you’ll avoid getting to the end of your work and not knowing how to end it. This is the writing equivalent to what directors use storyboards for.
- Have Another Person Read your Work
Ask a friend, family or colleague to read your first draft and ask for feedback. Explain what you intended to express or accomplish so that they can determine whether you succeeded.
- Always Make Communication the End Goal
You are writing because you want to communicate something – an idea or a feeling. So if you want to become a better writer, learn to say what you mean. Be precise. There’s actually no need to use highfalutin words to wow people. Your readers will be far more impressed if you can communicate your ideas succinctly, simply and clearly.
- Don’t Stop Reading
Reading is a great way to improve your writing skills. It might not be glaringly obvious, but you do learn things by simply picking up a book and finishing it. Your brain is filing away certain words or expressions to be used for another time. You’re also learning other styles of writing and experiencing first-hand how other writers are getting their ideas across.
- Challenge Yourself to Write Different Genres
Don’t limit yourself to just one genre. Even Stephen King took a break from writing about horror to pen The Green Mile and his memoir, On Writing. Remember that every genre can hone a skill. For example, fiction can help strengthen your imagination while poetry will force you to be precise. Meanwhile, non-fiction will require you to be careful with your narrative structure. Each of these skills will help hone your craft. So step out of your comfort zone and try writing in a different genre. Who knows, it might show you how you can still improve.
- Take a Break
Writing is hard work. Every successful writer will tell you this. Cognitive scientists have even proven that writing is harder than playing in a chess tournament or learning how to play the piano. So when you’re feeling frustrated or depressed over how your project is going, take heart; writing is hard for everyone. So instead of forcing yourself to finish your essay or a chapter in just one sitting, take a step back. Leave the room, go out for a walk or eat something. Taking a break will help you to reflect and reassess your work. You’ll also return refreshed and ready to give it another shot.
- Always do your Research
Your readers will know whether you’ve made the effort to research and learn everything there is to know about your subject. They will also appreciate you more for it. So do your due diligence and research, even if you’re writing about your own experience or trying to bring your imagination to life. Even fantasy worlds require research to really give them life.
- Save the Minutiae for Later
Don’t concern yourself with grammar, spelling or punctuation marks yet. Focus on finishing the first draft of your work before worrying about your sentence structure or word choices. Worrying about these things will just distract you from what’s more important when you start writing – your ideas. You can always clean things up when you’re on the final draft.
- Rearrange your Ideas
Change up how you write sentences. You can try shifting new information to the right of your sentence.
For example, don’t write “questions about the legalities of a power of attorney are more difficult than that of having a living will.”
Instead, you can try, “more difficult than the living will are questions about the legalities of a power of attorney.”
You can also shift incidental ideas to the left of your sentence. So don’t write, “the data used to prove that the new material is stronger than metal are weak for the most part.”
It’s better to write,“for the most part, the data used to prove that the new material is stronger than metal are weak.”
- Don’t make Assumptions Regarding what your Reader Knows
George Bernard Shaw said that, “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Don’t assume that your reader already understands the details, context or background of your idea. Even if you think that you’re just repeating or explaining something that’s public knowledge, you should still make the effort to inform, clarify or update your readers so that they’ll receive your message clearly.
Like everything we do in life, writing becomes easier with practice. Communication is an inherent skill in all of us and writing is just another form of communicating with people. So don’t be intimidated. Keep writing and do your best to convey your ideas.
Central College Online is a part of the Group Colleges of Australia organisation which has been established for over thirty years and offers online courses in more than forty subjects to thousands of students.