A 'How-Not-To-Style-Your-Life' Guide

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Nine Ways To Improve Your Writing Style


When I first started university, I very much felt like I'd been thrown into the middle of the ocean and simply been expected to swim. As hopelessly lost as I felt, I was fortunate enough to have access to lectures, seminars and workshops all dedicated to teaching first year students how to develop their academic writing. I still find myself drawing on the lessons I learnt in those first few weeks and I thought it'd be a nice idea to share them along with some of the other tips I've picked up over the last couple of years.

Something I’d like to point out is that this post isn’t just about improving academic writing. Whilst some of them are admittedly more specific than others, these tips have proved invaluable when writing blog posts and other types of prose and hopefully it can work for some of you guys too!

1. Read your writing out loud.
This is potentially the best advice I've ever been given. Only by reading something out loud can you get a true idea of the how each sentence sounds, how easily it reads and whether or not what you've written actually makes sense. I read every sentence I write out loud and the difference between how it sounds in your head as opposed to how it sounds coming out of your mouth can be massive. 

2. Simplify your words.
As problematic as Orwell can be, he was definitely on to something with "never use a long word where a short one will do". In my not-so-humble opinion, the best way to communicate an idea is to find the most simple yet eloquent way of phrasing it. An exception to this is when you have to use technical jargon to jump through academic hoops (such as identifying a specific literary term in an English essay), but it's still a good idea to avoid weighing down your argument with them. Just think of when Joey uses a thesaurus in Friends.

3. Perfect your proof-read.
When it comes to redrafting and proof-reading a piece of writing, the most important things to look out for are grammar and syntax errors. Nothing stops a reader in their tracks quite like a glaringly obvious mistake; they focus and fixate on it, and in the process, the impact of whatever you're saying is ultimately undermined. Whenever I write something, my brain works significantly faster than my hands can type, and I always end up missing out words. Always. I find that the best way to avoid this is to proof-read meticulously to iron out every crease.

4. Perfect your sentence structure.
This is somewhat of an extension of number 3 ( and number 1 (oops)). The structure of a sentence is equally as important as what it's trying to say and can end up shaping its entire meaning. When reading over something like a blog post, add commas where you would naturally pause and as a rule, try to avoid unnecessarily long sentences.

5. Avoid ugly words.
As pretentious and snobbish as it sounds, ugly words exist. Let's be honest, no one likes the word moist. Or relish. And don't even get me started on hence. Try to find the beauty in everything you say. Particularly with a word-heavy blog post, a reader will prefer to glide through light, effortless prose rather than getting bogged down by stodgy, weighted sentences.

6. "...so what?"
This is brutal but effective and the best way to produce a concise and intriguing argument, particularly under the constraints of a short word limit. In essence, after you write a sentence, read it back and ask yourself '...so what?'. If your sentence isn't making a clear, valid point or isn't a good pre-cursor for a point you're about to make, get rid of it. Leave the waffle for breakfast (*shudders at awful pun*)

7. Use semicolons properly.
Snobbish, I know, but it does stick out like a sore thumb when they're used incorrectly. As a general rule, the two clauses of the sentence should be of equal importance, related to each other and could technically stand alone as separate sentences.

8. Beware of the 'therefore'.
I know they're easy to use and I've been guilty of using them too, but if they're overused in academic writing, it implies that you're jumping to a conclusion that you may not have properly made. Toe the line between having a decisive argument and an arrogant one (which is ironic coming from the person telling you 'how to write'...)

9. Read more.
Vague I know, but the point still stands. Reading is fab. 

And there we have it! The last thing I wanted to do was appear to be superior or condescending in this post and I really hope it hasn't come across like that. I just wanted to share a few tips that've helped me over the years and hopefully they can help some of you guys too. As usual, please let me know in the comments if any of these are useful for you or any other helpful tips that you'd like to share as well!
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106 comments

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