Think it’s impossible to improve your writing in 5 minutes?
Sometimes, all you need is a path, a way to cut through the noise and the clutter.
In this article, you’ll discover (or rediscover) a handful of simple, important truths about writing –truths that can take your writing from good to great.
Consider it a back-to-basics primer.
Let’s dive right in…
- 1 Share Your Stories
- 2 Mind the Details: Sentence-level Mechanics
- 3 Simplify Your Writing
- 4 Know Your Audience
- 5 Final Thoughts
If you’ve spent any time working on your writing craft, you’ve heard the maxim “show, don’t tell.”
We often reveal the most through stories, and the best stories place us in the middle of the action.
You know your stories.
You know them so well, in fact, you tend to discount them, filing them under broad categories, such as “water under the bridge” or “the mistake I won’t make again.” And then there’s the worst category of all: “too personal and painful to share with anyone.”
You’ve forgotten the value in your stories, the hard-won wisdom you’ve gained.
The real problem?
You’re afraid to reveal your struggles because you think you shouldn’t have any.
We live in the age of Facebook and Instagram, where others live fabulous lives with fabulous vacations, fabulous children, and photoshopped beach bodies.
Dredging up past experiences—experiences you’d never post on social media—inspires dread.
As writers, however, we owe our readers more.
And while this doesn’t require revealing every deep, dark secret from your past, you can certainly scan your memories for meaningful ways to engage your readers.
Stories possess immense power.
For better or worse, an engaging story will have a profound influence on your readers.
The key element, according to Zak, is tension. Increase the tension in your stories, and you’ll light up more of the brain. We seem to be hard-wired for drama.
Go to Netflix. Sample the top-performing titles. Watch the trailers, and you’ll always encounter struggle.
Struggle builds tension, so keep this in mind when you write.
Whether it’s fiction or a blog post, provide details. Place your readers in the scene. Help them see, feel, taste, and touch. Reveal small pieces at a time to dial up the drama.
Mind the Details: Sentence-level Mechanics
Details count, so begin with sentence-level mechanics.
Vary Your Sentences
Every writer has a unique style. If you think about it, you probably have a few go-to sentence structures you use more than others. To master the sentence, variety is key.
Pay particular attention to length, structure, and punctuation.
Pay Attention to Sentence Length
In the classroom, on the first day of editing instruction, I ask students to vary the length of their sentences. After offering this advice, the first thing I notice is longer sentences. It never occurs to them to subtract words.
I’m sure you’ve read well-meaning advice everywhere, telling you to write short, simple sentences. This is great advice, but it’s incomplete. Short sentences work best when they’re balancing longer, more complex sentences.I’m sure you’ve read well-meaning advice everywhere, telling you to write short, simple sentences. This is great advice, but it’s incomplete. Short sentences work best when they’re balancing longer, more complex sentences. Click To Tweet
Follow longer sentences with short sentences. Use short sentences to reiterate, to emphasize, to show you mean business.
Consider Each Sentence’s Structure
Evaluate your sentences for variety.
The common subject/verb/object structure is perfect for clarity; however, you have infinite possibilities available. Try combining sentences for variety.
Move elements around. Notice what happens when you reorder your subject. Try placing it near the beginning, middle, or end of your sentences.
Read your paragraphs aloud, looking for ways to improve the individual sentences.
A few minor adjustments in sentence construction can increase flow and interest.
Mind Your Punctuation
I’m always amazed by the number of writers who don’t understand punctuation:
- They think a comma exists only to indicate a pause.
- They think semicolons and colons are interchangeable.
- They think it’s illegal to begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction.
Many have never stopped to consider the Oxford comma.
Punctuation isn’t decoration, and it’s not optional, either.
It’s essential for meaning, for preventing misunderstandings.
If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, brush up on your punctuation skills.
Purchase a reputable book on punctuation. Read the reviews, and look for quality testimonials.
Visit the Grammar Girl website. She’ll teach you more than you ever wanted to know about grammar and punctuation.
Borrow an old textbook or workbook. You’ll find an endless supply of teaching worksheets online.
Punctuation will empower you. You won’t have to hold back, to edit what you really want to say.
And you won’t have to labor over awkward sentence construction, either; you’ll know just what to do.
Simplify Your Writing
I can imagine your internal dialogue right now.
“If one more person tells me to simplify…”
“Some things just aren’t that simple…”
Allow me to explain.
Writing About Complex Ideas
Making qualified statements is easy.
Helping your reader understand them is another matter.
How many times have you stopped reading a book or an article when the subject became too technical?
In a matter of minutes, the text went from interesting to annoying. You felt like an outsider looking at complex machinery—like you’d stumbled upon something you’d rather not see.
Few people want to see the insides of their computers.
As soon as you start talking about PCBs and IC chips, capacitors and resistors, diodes and transistors, your reader loses interest.
Rather than discussing tangled wires and circuits, find common ground. Talk about a computer’s function. Talk about the ways it brings people together, the ways it stores and retrieves information.
When you’re discussing difficult ideas or processes, offer examples.
If you can’t offer tangible examples, consider offering analogies.
Simplify the Language
Whether you’re writing about common issues or complex ideas, simplify the language.
Roman philosopher Cicero advocated simple language, saying, “When you wish to instruct, be brief. Every word that is unnecessary only pours verbosity over the side of a brimming mind.”Roman philosopher Cicero advocated simple language, saying, “When you wish to instruct, be brief. Every word that is unnecessary only pours verbosity over the side of a brimming mind.” Click To Tweet
Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein offered the following advice:
“The most important lesson in the writing trade is that any manuscript is improved if you cut away the fat.”
Perhaps, Leonardo DaVinci said it best: “Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication.”
If you’re uncertain about your writing, whether you’re writing in simple, effective terms, consider a readability app. Check out these options:
According to their website, this free application provides “7 popular readability formulas to calculate the average grade level, reading age, and text difficulty of your sample text.”
The free Hemingway app/editor checks for simplicity, adverbs, passive voice, and reading difficulty.
Yoast, the popular SEO plugin for WordPress (free version), has a built-in readability checker to help optimize your writing for readers and search engines.
Know Your Audience
Finally, you must always consider your audience. Do you know their education level, their background experience, their level of shared knowledge?
If so, you can include industry-specific language.
Otherwise, excessive jargon will create confusion.
Visit a few top-performing sites in your genre; you can find them with a simple Google search. Pay attention to the reading level, the language used, the presence or absence of industry-specific jargon.
Is the tone of the content technical, conversational, educational, or entertaining?
Get to know your audience, and target their interests.
Improving your writing takes time, patience, and commitment. These simple tips will help you get there faster.
What are your favorite writing tips?
What strategies have made the most difference in your writing progress?
Join the conversation below.