Improve your writing immediately with these 5 tactics
Everyone has moments where they need to write something important, whether they want to or not. But not everyone practises their writing daily or considers themselves a natural.
Maybe you have to write a proposal, an important email, a business plan, or even a new website for your side-project.
It’s easy to dismiss yourself and say, “This is going to suck, I’m not a writer!” but it turns out there are some quick tricks you can use, that don’t take years of practice. They only take 5 minutes.
As Blake Powell said (and shows us with his constant articles and popularity on Medium), “You’re capable of being a creator. Of moving others with your words and generating limitless potential with your being.”
So here are five easy-to-apply tactics that will immediately improve your writing.
1. Make it about them.
As Nicholas Epley wrote, “Galileo may have removed the Earth from the center of the universe, but every person on this planet is still at the center of his or her own universe.”
Often when people write, they focus too much on themselves.
For example, which would you rather read?
Me focused: I am happy to inform you that we have reviewed your application and approved your loan.
You focused: Congratulations! Your loan has been approved. You can now purchase your new home.
Me focused: We have shipped your order today.
You focused: You will receive your order on Wednesday.
Me focused: 10 Ways I Increased My Sales
You focused: 10 Ways You Can Increase Your Sales
Clearly, the ‘you focused’ sentences are better. Why? They focus on what the reader cares about. As the motorcyclist, software manager and writer Kris Gage said, “It’s not about what you feel — it’s how you make THEM feel.”
How do you make sure your writing is focusing on what the reader cares about?
- The easiest way is to use you, you’re, and your throughout your writing. It forces you to take the reader’s perspective.
- Ask yourself a question. Why would the reader care? Your answer is what you should write.
- Dale Carnegie wrote, “The only way to influence people is to talk about what they want and show them how to get it.”
HOWEVER, there’s one instance when you shouldn’t focus on the reader. When you’re being critical. That’s why the second sentence of this section is, “Often when people write, they focus too much on themselves,” rather than “When you write, you focus too much on yourself.”
Why is this caveat so important? The more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it. Not using the word ‘you’ when criticising something protects your reader’s ego.
2. Shorten your sentences.
Long sentences are boring. Short sentences hold our attention.
Let’s take some quotes about short sentences from professional writers. First, I’ll rewrite them as if they were one long sentence. Then I’ll post what they actually wrote. You’ll be able to see how much better using shorter sentences is.
- Scott Adams
Rewritten as one long sentence: Write short sentences by avoiding multiple thoughts in one sentence because readers aren’t as smart as you think.
What he actually wrote: “Write short sentences. Avoid putting multiple thoughts in one sentence. Readers aren’t as smart as you’d think.”—Scott Adams
- Theodore M. Bernstein
Rewritten as one long sentence: The argument is sometimes advanced, ‘What difference does the length of the sentence make so long as it is clear?’
But clarity is not the sole criterion; the important thing is ease of comprehension and small blocks of meaning are more easily comprehended than large ones, after all, a quart of gin is perfectly clear, but you wouldn’t try to drink it all in one draught.
What he actually wrote: “The argument is sometimes advanced, ‘What difference does the length of the sentence make so long as it is clear?’
But clarity is not the sole criterion; the important thing is ease of comprehension. And small blocks of meaning are more easily comprehended than large ones. After all, a quart of gin is perfectly clear, but you wouldn’t try to drink it all in one draught.”—Theodore M. Bernstein
- Ryan Holiday
Rewritten as one long sentence: When I was writing I tried to keep my sentences short and make my revelations big and exciting because I wanted people to leave with important and actionable sound bites.
What he actually wrote: “When I was writing I tried to keep my sentences short and make my revelations big and exciting. I wanted people to leave with important and actionable sound bites.”—Ryan Holiday
When you find you’ve used a long sentence, break it into two short sentences.
HOWEVER, while you should mostly write short sentences, you can’t fall into the trap of only writing short sentences of the same length.
Here’s a demonstration:
Consider this five word sentence. Now try two of them. Five word sentences work individually. But too many become lifeless. It’s getting boring isn’t it?
I better change. The ear demands variety. Always. Now, by varying the sentence length it becomes much more engaging and holds your attention. It flows. It’s rhythmic.
Why? Predictability is boring. Variety is interesting. So I’m combining short sentences with medium length sentences. And now that you’re engaged, I can deliver a longer sentence, explaining that we prefer diverse sentence length because it is most similar to how we usually communicate; by speaking.
3. Don’t lecture. Tell a story.
Nobody likes to be told what to do. It’s the same with rebellious 2 year olds as it is with grumpy 102 year olds. We don’t like to be lectured to. As Jason Toff said, “Telling a good story is everything.” We love them.
Plutarch lived and wrote around 2000 years ago. His writings heavily influenced Shakespeare, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Montaigne. He is still widely read today.
Why is he still popular 2000 years later? What’s his story?
As Sarah Bakewell wrote;
> If Plutarch wants to tell us that the trick in living well is to make the best of any situation, he does it by telling the story of a man who threw a stone at his dog, missed, hit his stepmother instead, and exclaimed, ‘Not so bad after all!’
Plutarch doesn’t tell us how to live. He shows us in a story. And so we learn.
Personally, I’ve learnt more about finance from the writer Nassim Taleb than all my lectures from my finance degree. Nassim Taleb makes finance and statistics fun. Here’s how he describes his approach; “I will not drive the reader into a dull college-lecture-type predictable journey, but rather into the type of adventure I’d like to have.”
Safexpress is a logistics company in India. Consider whether a lecture or story they can tell is more powerful:
The Lecture: Safexpress is an excellent logistics company. 98.84 percent of our deliveries arrive on time. What does a CEO of a multinational company say about us? “We’ve used Safexpress for all our deliveries in India and we’ve found them to be an excellent service provider.”
The Story: Safexpress had handled the release of the fifth Harry Potter book—every Potter book in every bookstore in India had been delivered there by Safexpress, an insanely complicated delivery: All the books had to arrive in stores by 8 a.m. on the morning of the release. Not too early, or the bookstore owners might try to sell them early and the secret would be blown, and not too late, or the bookstore owners would be irate at lost sales. Also, the Potter books needed the same piracy protections as the studio’s films—there could be no leaks.
Don’t tell. Show.
4. Delete unnecessary words to keep it simple.
You know how people say a picture speaks a thousand words? Well, the 5 right words say more than 500 wrong words. A guiding principle is to avoid sounding smart and instead make your readers feel smart.
Here’s what some writers have to say:
“Simple writing is persuasive. A good argument in five sentences will sway more people than a brilliant argument in a hundred sentences. Don’t fight it.” — Scott Adams
“The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.”
— Henry Green.
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” — Stephen King.
So what words should you delete?
- Jargon, technical language.
- Adverbs. You never need very. For example, people aren’t very happy. They’re ecstatic.
- Say the same thing with fewer words. Rewrite a 10 word sentence in 5 words. Delete the extra words.
- Light verbs such as make, do, have, put and take.
The linguist Steven Pinker helps us understand why we should avoid light verbs. Consider the light verbs make and put. By using them we get the phrase:
> Make an appearance in Romeo and Juliet; and
> Put on a performance for Romeo and Juliet.
Instead we can write:
> Appear in Romeo and Juliet.
> Perform Romeo and Juliet.
Pinker also highlights ‘There is’ and ‘It is’ as words that indicate an opportunity to delete unnecessary words. For example:
There is competition between groups for resources
works just fine as- Groups compete for resources.
However, the amount of abstraction (jargon) you can use depends on your readers. If you’re writing for a magazine that is only read by high-level computer programmers, then you can use computer jargon. However, when considering your audience, it’s better to assume too little than too much as you will ensure everyone has a clear understanding of your ideas. It is better to include than alienate.
5. Use online grammar & spelling checkers.
Grammar is boring. I know, I know, I know. But the businessman George Horace Lorimer tells us why it matters; “… But it isn’t enough to be all right in this world; you’ve got to look all right as well, because two-thirds of success is making people think you are all right.”
Furthermore, correcting your grammar is difficult. When people read their own writing, they read what they wanted to say. Not what they actually wrote.
Getting someone else to read over your writing helps. But they’re not always available when you need them. Or they’re not word nerds.
That’s why online grammar checkers are so helpful. They help you catch mistakes you would otherwise not see.
My favourites are;
These 5 quick tricks will immediately improve your writing. They’re not to be memorised, but rather used as a checklist. Whenever you’re writing you can refer to it and immediately improve your writing to land a proposal, make a great speech or even a wedding toast. So Get going. A military veteran, writer of the novel Living On Empty, Jordan Robison said, “The best advice is just to write.”
Enjoyed these tips? Then you will love this post: 7 Practical Tips for Cheating at Design by Adam Wathan & Steve Schoger. It’s a similar guide, but for design instead of writing. It inspired this post.