Five Tips to Make Over Your Writing Style

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You know when you read something that just works? Where everything fits together and flows nicely? Well, as Nathaniel Hawthorne explained, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” But hard doesn’t mean impossible or unpleasant, and as with anything, you can work to improve your ability. Refine your writing style with these five tips.Your writing style is made up of a variety of "blocks" that work together to form a cohesive whole.

  1. Read voraciously and in a variety of genres. Think about what you’re reading and how it applies to your work. You can learn a lot from studying other writers. See how their words affect you, how they craft their words to convey their meaning and evoke certain emotions or attitudes, and how they handle different situations. Study books, articles, and blogs about the art of writing. And form a book group with other writers (in person or online) to discuss everything you’re reading and expand your perspective.
  2. Write, write, write . . . and write some more. Reading is great, but the best way to improve your writing style is to write. And shut off your internal critic—do not edit (at this point). Your own style will emerge. Play around with how you write things, your word choice, sentence structure, paragraphing, descriptions, and everything else. Adapt them to what you’re writing, and see what works as you experiment.
  3. Reflect and revise. Think about what you’re trying to do with your writing, what you want readers to take away. Writing is about expressing ideas, so you need to make sure the style you’ve chosen to write in effectively conveys your ideas to your target audience. Is your word choice appropriate? Are the words you selected too complex or too simple? Do they fit together nicely? Does your sentence structure reflect what is being written? Is it too complex or too simple for the ideas you’re expressing? Could your sentences be written more powerfully in a different way? Are your paragraphs logical, or do you have a reason for jumbling them together?
  4. Take the time to listen to your work—literally. Read it aloud, or have someone read it to you. Doing so lets you hear the flow of your words, sentences, and paragraphs. It helps you identify any choppy areas where your writing needs to be smoothed out.
  5. Find an unbiased critique partner. You’re closely invested in your writing. You know what you’ve been through with it. Working with another writer provides necessary objectivity, a fresh perspective, and an opportunity for growth. You can bounce ideas off each other and learn from each other. Each of you will become a stronger writer for it.

How do you work to improve your writing style? Please leave a comment!

Six Steps to a Perfectly Proofed Piece

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It is wise to revise!After investing your time and energy brainstorming, researching, and writing a first draft, revising may not be a pleasant thought. But proofreading and editing don’t have to be chores, and even if you view them as evil, they’re still necessary evils. Here are some tips I’ve found useful.

  1. Breathe! Take a break from your writing and clear your head before you tackle revising. When you’re ready, slowly work through your draft in a quiet location, taking breaks if you need to. Remember, speedy proofreading and editing usually mean sloppy proofreading and editing.
  2. Read aloud from a hard copy of your document. Printing your work out may not be environmentally friendly, but it allows you to follow along in a way that a computer screen doesn’t. It’s easy to miss typos and jump lines when reading from a screen. And reading out loud forces you to slow down and focus on each word, each sentence, each paragraph.Microsoft Word's Tracking Changes makes it easy to see the edits you've made.
  3. Create a style sheet, or checklist, of important names, locations, descriptions, and anything else that must remain consistent throughout your piece. You wouldn’t want your blue-eyed, blonde-haired main character to suddenly become a brown-eyed, black-haired one, would you? And Suzy shoudn’t become Susie. Readers value consistency and so should you.
  4. Think about your topic. Are you missing a point that would improve your piece? Does your writing reflect your intended meaning? Is your writing style suitable for your audience and purpose?
  5. Check your punctuation, grammar, and content. Be on the lookout for typos, missing words, sentence fragments, run-on sentences, subject-verb agreement, homophones, and other problems. Spell-check misses many “miss steaks” and grammar-check occasionally makes strange suggestions, so keep your dictionary and grammar guide handy. Facts, figures, names, quotations, phone numbers, Web addresses, and other bits of information also need to be verified. And don’t forget to check the table of contents, indexes, captions, tables, headings, citations, cross-references, headers and footers, and page numbers for accuracy as well. Remember, when in doubt, check it out.
  6. Two heads really are better than one. Unbiased readers can let you know if something is vague or lacking. And they’ll catch errors that you missed because you saw what you thought you wrote instead of what you really wrote. If this isn’t an option, at least go through your piece a second time.

Do you have any other helpful proofreading and editing tips? Please leave a comment!

The Relativity of Writing Right

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What's right?Recently a client sent me a piece they’d been working on for a while, asking me to “please make the writing right.” That made me wonder, what does it take for writing to be “right”? Do you have to follow every grammatical rule, spelling convention, punctuation guideline, and stylistic instruction you’ve memorized over the years, no matter what? I don’t think so. And whose “rules” would you even follow, since they often vary from style guide to style guide.

Sure, there are basic spelling, grammar, punctuation, and stylistic conventions that you should follow if you want your readers to understand what you’re trying to say, but part of writing right depends on your situation. It’s more of an art than an exact science.

What’s right for one situation might not work for another. An academic research paper will be written in a different tone and style than a memoir, and a professional cover letter will differ from a message sent to a friend. Fiction books operate under a different set of standards than nonfiction ones. What you’re writing impacts a long list of decisions you make as you work on your piece. Should you use contractions? Acronyms and technical jargon? The serial comma? LongWhat's "right" varies from person to person and situation to situation. sentences or short ones? All of these elements, and more, vary from piece to piece.

In short, the one rule you should always follow if you want your writing to be right is to do what works for your writing, for your purpose, and for your reader. Now, I’m not saying you should completely ignore the agreed-upon mechanics of writing—that wouldn’t work for your writing or for your reader, and it would make for some really irritating writing. But once you know the rules, if something doesn’t quite work for you, and you have a good reason for ignoring it, go ahead and do so.

What do you think “writing right” entails? Please leave a comment!