6 tips to strengthen your writing

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CONTENT, style, and mechanics all play an important role in creating a strong essay, story, report, or article.

When we communicate on paper:

  • Our goal is to be thorough, accurate, concise, and concrete.
  • Our writing needs to flow well and make sense.
  • We have to guard against misspellings and sloppy grammar, which can distract the reader and dilute our message.

Writers have dozens—even hundreds—of tips and tools at their disposal to make this process easier and improve chances for success. From time to time, I pick different ones to help you or your students plan, write, or edit more effectively. Here are six tips to try out:

1. Brainstorm Before Writing

The purpose of brainstorming is to plan ideas and jot down details to jumpstart your writing. Brainstorming can take many forms, including clustering, mind-mapping, lists, grids, and formal graphic organizers.

Instead of writing full sentences, it’s better to make lists of words and short phrases. Later, as you refer to your brainstorming sheet during writing time, your list of concrete words and other details will jog your memory and keep your writing from taking tangents. Brainstorming keeps you on track.

2. Use Different Kinds of Sentences

Try a combination of simple, compound, and complex sentences to add variety and improve the style of your writing. Here’s a helpful quiz on sentence types.

3. Choose Strong Words

Vivid, active, colorful words have the power to paint clear mental pictures and stir the reader’s emotions. When dull, vague, or overly used words clutter up your writing, replace them with stronger, more precise ones.

Dull: Isabella made a nice dessert.
Interesting: Isabella whipped up a rich chocolate mousse.

Watch out for boring words such as fine, nice, or good. Is it a good book, good friend, or good weather? Then express it more specifically.

riveting book, faithful friend, balmy weather

Avoid vague verbs such as cried, said, or went in favor of concrete ones:

The orphan sobbed, wailed, or wept.
Dr. Cooper ordered, whispered, or agreed.
The horse galloped, trotted, or raced.

Check to see that you haven’t repeated main words too many times, using your thesaurus to find appropriate synonyms.

Finally, when picking the best words for saying what you mean, don’t choose them based on how long they are or how clever they make you sound. Otherwise, you run the risk of sounding pompous or stuffy.

4. Include Subordinating Conjunctions

Sentence variations can add interest and maturity to any piece of writing. Using subordinating conjunctions is just one way to vary sentence structure, often by combining sentences like these together:

I shop frugally. 
I save several hundred dollars each month.

Example 1: When the subordinating conjunction begins the sentence, a comma follows the dependent clause.

Because I shop frugally, I save several hundred dollars each month.

Example 2: When a dependent clause beginning with a subordinating conjunction comes at the end of the sentence, don’t separate the two clauses with a comma.

I save several hundred dollars each month because I shop frugally.

Either way, you can see how using because to combine two short sentences results in a single but more interesting sentence.

If the term or concept is new to you or your students, you may find it helpful to print out a list of subordinating conjunctions.

5.  Watch Out for Misplaced Modifiers

Avoid pesky misplaced modifiers—phrases or clauses placed near the wrong noun. Make sure to position a modifier close to the word or phrase it should modify to avoid confusion.

Incorrect: Hiking along the overgrown path, a tree stump tripped Fernie. 

Why is this wrong? Because the sentence implies that the tree stump was hiking along the path!

Correct: Hiking along the overgrown path, Fernie tripped over a tree stump.

6. Revise Everything

Everyone’s writing improves with editing, so no matter how great you think your article or story is, let it breathe for a day and then scrutinize it for clarity, conciseness, concreteness, and errors.

Your Turn 

What’s your favorite writing tip?

Creative Commons photo: Claudio Gennari, courtesy of Flickr.
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