Want to know how to improve your writing? It’s easier than you think.
Language can make or break a document. We’ve all read documents that have been difficult to get through; often, the blame for this can be attributed to the use of expletives (aka lazy pronouns), overused phrases, buzzwords, too many words, needlessly pompous words, and the inappropriate use of verbs and active and passive voice.
The good news: business, technical, and scientific writers can easily improve their writing skills by making a few easy adjustments related to these issues. In turn, these adjustments will enhance readability and usability by using the language and words your readers expect and will understand.
But what are these “writing hacks” related to language use, and how can you use them to ensure your documents are concise and precise?
1: Delete words that add no value.
Use words and phrases that make reading and understanding the document easy. Be willing to get rid of words that add no value or that confuse meaning. Every word should add value. For example, shorten multi-word phrases into single-world alternatives when possible.
- Original: In order to use the robot so that it has the greatest impact, we should make sure that we can connect it in many different ways.
- Rewrite: To use the robot for the greatest impact, we should ensure it has many different connection options.
Another simple writing hack when learning how to improve writing skills: avoid expletives.
No, we don’t mean curse words here. This kind of grammatical expletive refers to using the pronouns “it” and “there” when they don’t take the place of nouns.
- If I write, “The robot knew where it could find the tools,” I’m using “it” as a pronoun to replace “robot.” That’s fine.
- But if I write “It is assumed that the robot will be able to find the tools,” I’m using “it” as an expletive, since the “it” in this case doesn’t replace a noun.
Expletives are usually unnecessary. Try to rewrite statements without them, so the end result is shorter and clearer.
- Original: There are methods the system uses to help engineers quickly and easily find information.
As you can see, besides being unnecessary, the first part of the sentence (“there are ways”) adds no value. The sentence can be rewritten without the expletive:
- Rewrite: The system includes methods that help engineers quickly and easily find information.
Hurley Write Tip of the Week - Delete Unnecessary Words
2: Avoid clichés and other overused phrases.
In the modern world of texting, tweeting, and lightning-fast emails, language has changed. While that’s not unusual, we argue that some people have become lazier in their language usage. In many cases, writers are much more likely to use a cliché or overused phrase because doing so is easy and habitual. However, using clichés is problematic for a several reasons:
- Many clichés have lost their precise meaning, so we may be allowing our readers to decide for themselves what the phrase means, and that means we’re not in control of the document.
- Clichés flatten meaning. They are simplistic, often stereotypical, and read as stale and unoriginal because the reader will have encountered them so often.
- We live in a multicultural society; and while a cliché’s meaning may be obvious for most of us, the same may not be true for others.
Jargon has the same problems. Using jargon immediately limits the reach of your document because fewer people can understand it; you also risk dating the writing because jargon can easily change over time. Ask yourself if the words and phrases you’re using, if not conventional, will be understood by someone who reads and uses the document five days, five months, or five years from now.
So, want an easy hack for how to improve your writing? The next time you’re inclined to write “utilize,” “blue sky thinking,” or “moving forward,” know that using such clichéd language may make you seem lazy or, worse, may cloud your meaning.
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3: Use the real verb, not a verb changed into a noun.
Changing verbs into nouns adds unnecessary words to the sentence and lessens the impact of the writing. Examples include:
- Take into consideration
- Make a decision
- Have an effect
- Have or make an agreement
- Do an assessment
Instead, use what we call the real verb:
Often, verbs that have been changed into nouns can be identified by the endings “-ation,” “-ence,” and “-ment” (and their derivatives), like “consideration” and “assessment” above.
4: Use active and passive voice appropriately.
Many writers get hung up on active versus passive voice. Here’s an example of each:
- Active Voice: “We wrote the contract last month.”
- Passive Voice: “The contract was written last month.”
Some people believe that passive voice is always incorrect, as it’s wordier than active; others think the passive voice is always correct, as it (theoretically) shows impartiality or objectivity. However, both active voice and passive voice are useful, and both have their place in writing. Carefully consider your readers, their expectations for the document, and the action you want them to take, as these elements dictate the choice of active or passive voice. Fundamentally, matching your writing to your reader is how to improve writing skills. In general:
- Use active voice when readers need to know who or what completed an action.
- Use passive voice when you don’t know who or what completed the action or when that information is unimportant to the reader.
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Key Takeaways: How to Improve Writing Skills with 4 Simple Hacks
- When editing, look for places where you’ve used more words than necessary, such as expletives and verbs turned into nouns. Shorten those. Learn more here.
- Similarly, look for overused phrases, buzzwords, and jargon. Replace with simpler, straightforward phrasing. Learn more here.
- Search for “it” and “there” to ensure you’re using them as proper pronouns, not expletives. Learn more here.
- Verify your use of active versus passive voice is appropriate to the material, the reader, and your organization’s (or the publication’s) preferred style. Learn more here.
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