Excelling in English Writing: Tips From a Professional

For as long as we have had written languages, there have always been scholars, artists, poets and writers looking to get as much as they can out of the written word.

Whether it’s a 10,000 word thesis on chemical compounds, a passionate poem for your lover, a 3 line haiku, or even just a 120 character, expletive-ridden rant on social media, the written word has always had the power to leave a definitive and long lasting impression.

How many words do you think that you actually read in a day? Whilst it certainly won’t compare to the tens of thousands that the average person speaks and hears in a day, it’s probably a lot more than you may think.

Some writings tend to stick in our mind more than others. An evocative newspaper column may have you considering various issues and arguments for days afterwards. Likewise a dirty joke you read may also have you rushing to tell all your friends before someone beats you to it.

Writing is a thing of beauty, and is there to be explored and admired.

But what makes a good writer, and how can we emulate them?

As someone who has had the good fortune to have his work published in around half a dozen countries, I guess maybe I can offer some advice. So here for you today, I present some of my top tips to improving your writing.

 

1. Keep it sharp, keep it simple.

Often, some of the most impactful and memorable pieces or writing we see are incredibly short. Newspaper headlines are a classic example. How do you sum up a potentially world-changing event in just the 5 or 6 word limit that front page headline gives you?

When getting creative with your writing, one must always resist the temptation to get too flowery with one’s wording, and in an attempt to add further texture, tone and colour to one’s own ramblings, become somewhat disconnected from the stated goal of the piece and thereby slide off into superfluous hyperbolae. The previous sentence is a prime example of this!

Getting too wordy will only alienate your readers. It’s not big, it’s not clever and, especially in an academic context, it won’t impress anyone.

Read some of the journalists in the international press. You’ll notice that even in the quality broadsheet press, the vocabulary may be more elaborate, but the writer still retains a short, sharp, punchy prose style that keeps the reader onboard.

 

2. Do not use words that you don’t fully understand.

I get it, we all like to give off the impression of being well-educated, especially in an academic or professional setting. However, we must always resist the tendency to use a word that we think sounds intellectual but whose full meaning and context we are not completely sure of. As a case in point, I get really annoyed when people say things like “It’s literally raining cats and dogs out there!”

If that really were the case, I think the animal welfare groups in your community would have a lot to say about it!

Of course, the error here stems from the writer confusing, perhaps unintentionally, the meanings of “literally” and “figuratively”.

 

3. When in doubt, follow the “5 Ws”

Is your writing detailed enough? Have you included all the relevant information? In particular, non-native speakers of English, who make up the bulk of the students I have taught in my time, have a tendency to leave out a lot of information, believing that they lack the vocabulary to fully express themselves.

Contrary to their belief, it doesn’t necessarily take a huge vocabulary to write a detailed piece.

The 5 Ws I referred to in my headline are: Who, what, where, when and why. Each story that you write, and indeed each sentence, must aim to address as many of these as possible. Indeed, in my days as a journalist and editor, I could say conclusively that any story that did not answer all of these 5 points would not be approved by me for publication.

As an example, here’s a sentence a student of mine wrote. The aim of the exercise was to get the student to write at least 70 words on the theme “What did you do during summer vacation?”

Here is what she wrote:

“I went to Kyoto, it was fun.”

At seven words, it isn’t even close to the target, and it would seem there is little hope for this student. Not so if we apply the 5 Ws.

I asked her to write, in note form, the 5 Ws. Here is what she wrote:

Who: Me, my family

What: a weekend trip

Where: Kyoto, Kinkakuji Temple, Kiyomizu Temple

When: Last Friday

Why: Because we wanted to see historic places in Japan.

Using this information, I asked her to redraft the sentence:

“Last Friday, my family and I took a weekend trip to Kyoto in Japan.

We wanted to see many historical sites, so we visited the Kiyomizu and Kinkakuji Temples. It was a lot of fun.”

With just this one small thought exercise the word count has multiplied by a factor of 5 to 35. Still not quite at the required level yet, but a massive improvement for sure.

 

4. Drafting is good, but don’t overdo it

Writers, much like painters and craftsmen can have a notoriously fiery artistic temperament. We are always looking a ways to make a piece that little bit sharper, more impactful or perhaps funnier. In truth, once your writing has gone through multiple drafts, what you are left with may be radically different from what you had initially intended. In doing so, you lose the essence of what you were originally trying to write.

In order to avoid this, as a general rule, I only redraft work once or twice. After 3 drafts, I feel it’s probably as good as its going to get, without compromising on the feeling of the piece. Other writers may disagree with me on this, but as someone who is frequently published internationally, I have to say it is a methodology that has always worked for me.

 

5. Above all, take pleasure in your writing.

At the end of the day, human nature is such that we naturally perform better in a task when we enjoy it. This is why in school I was frequently top of the class in English and social studies, but rock bottom when it came to mathematics and religious studies. The latter subjects never interested me and as such my performance waned.

Write about things that interest you, write at your own pace and above all, don’t force it. When you hit a wall, take a break and regather your thoughts. We all have the writing gift inside of us somewhere, the key is knowing how to bring it out.

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