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20 Pointers for Good Writing

Vicki Meade

  1. Know your audience. Who is your reader? As you plan and write, picture a person who represents the audience your piece aims to reach. This helps you keep in mind the audience's interests, knowledge, and limitations.

  2. Determine your purpose.  Why are you writing the piece?  What do you hope to accomplish?  What main message or impression do you want your reader to carry away?  Figuring this out helps you create a clear “main idea” and select the right tone and approach. Common purposes are to inform, entertain, instruct, motivate readers to action, or persuade.

  3. Narrow your topic. Subjects like “school” or “love” or “computers” are too broad. Pick an aspect that is well-defined and focused, such as how Google has changed the way college students do their schoolwork, the trouble with finding love on the Internet, or ways to protect your PC from viruses.

  4. Start in an interesting way.  Even if your introduction is only one or two sentences, make sure it catches the reader's attention with precise language and an engaging style.

  5. Get to the point quickly. By the first or second paragraph, what the piece is about should be clear. Warm-up material that goes on too long irritates readers and strains their interest.  After you write your introduction, go back and edit it down.

  6. Have your facts in hand. Make sure that facts important to your piece are easily accessible (e.g., written on note cards or flagged in reference books) so you can find and insert them without wasting time or losing your train of thought. 

  7. Involve your readers.  Present experiences to which others can relate.  Tell stories or give examples that make your points real and tangible. Thrust readers onto the scene, tap into their emotions, and give them a sense of being there. 

  8. Add color.  “Color” means words and descriptions that help readers see, feel, hear, and smell what is going on.  Color means vivid, lively language—words with texture that appeal to the senses and involve more than the reader's intellect.  Our brains tend to convert words and thoughts into pictures—so using images from the start is a powerful way to communicate.

  9. Write with conviction.  The reader is looking to you for facts and ideas.  Do not present them in a wishy-washy way.  Avoid qualifiers such as probably, almost, rather, and somewhat, which make your writing sound weak and hesitant.

  10. Express, don't impress.  Use a natural tone in your writing: don't try to sound like someone you're not.  That doesn't mean you should ignore the principles of good writing, including proper grammar and sentence structure. But avoid creating unnecessary work for the reader. For example, instead of your dentist asking, “Are you experiencing any difficulty?” it’s clearer if he asks, “Does it hurt?”  Other examples:

    Wordy Phrase

    Condensed Phrase

    at this point in time

    now

    in the event that

    if

    in light of the fact that

    since

    be considered that

    start off

    is

    start

    on an annual basis

    exhibits the ability to

    for the purpose of

    yearly

    can

    for

    on the occasion of

    in the final analysis

    when

    finally

    it is obvious that

    obviously

    on an everyday basis

    routinely

    despite the fact that

    in the proximity of

    subsequent to

    although

    near

    later


  11. Never use a long word when a short word will do. For example, instead of “magnitude and configuration,” say “size and shape.”  Sophisticated ideas can often be conveyed  as effectively with short words as with long ones.  Other examples:

    Long                            Short
    Ascertain                     Discover, find out
    Attempt                       Try
    Communicate              Say, write, tell
    Facilitate                      Help, ease
    Implement                   Do
    Numerous                    Many
    Leverage                      Use, build on

  12. Prune excess words.  Unnecessary words are clutter. They slow the reader and smother your message.  Be ruthless in trimming extra words that take the punch out of your writing.  A sentence is wordy if it can be tightened without losing meaning.

  13. Be concrete and specific. Details win out over generalities because they create vivid images and help the reader relate. Which of the following gives you a clearer picture?  “The convention was well attended” or “Eight hundred people packed the Antiques Dealers Convention, filling all the seats in the auditorium.”

  14. Use strong verbs. Vague, imprecise verbs have less power than strong verbs that convey an action clearly. Instead of saying “he walked slowly into the room,” for example, you might say he strolled, ambled, shuffled, or tiptoed. This way, you convey how he walked without having to use an adjective or adverb. Compare “I ran quickly” with “I sprinted.” Which has more impact?

  15. Do not smother verbs. Sometimes excellent verbs are smothered in sentences because they are presented as nouns. For example, instead of “make a decision,” say “decide”; instead of “gave approval,” say “approved.”

  16. Avoid clichés.  Clichés are trite, overused expressions, such as “light as a feather” or “hit the nail on the head.”  You bring more impact to your writing when you say things in a fresh, original way. Our brains tend to notice what’s new and tune out what we’ve seen or heard before. Whenever you are tempted to use a cliché, ask yourself if there is a more effective way to make your point.

  17. If you must use jargon, define it.  Jargon is “inside talk” or specialized language used in certain professions or groups. Often, jargon is puffed-up language designed more to impress people than to inform them. The problem with jargon is that it excludes anyone who is not part of the group. If the audience is made up entirely of insiders, jargon has a purpose, but if your audience will be broader, define the jargon or include a glossary.  Example of jargon by a scientist: “The biota exhibited a 100% mortality response.” Meaning: “The fish died.” 

  18. Use the active voice, which is more direct, emphatic, and vigorous than the passive voice.  In the active voice, the subject of the sentence does the action: “George Washington chopped down the cherry tree.” In the passive voice, the subject receives the action: “The cherry tree was chopped down by George Washington.” Besides being boring, the passive voice can leave out important details.  For example, if you say “Colorful flowers were seen along the highway,” the reader has no idea who saw the flowers.

  19. Wrap up your piece crisply.  Use a sentence or short concluding paragraph that echoes the main idea without dully repeating it.  An effective conclusion brings the reader full circle from your opening statement and ties up loose ends.  Avoid endings that trail off or  introduce entirely new ideas that were not addressed in your piece.

  20. Accept that good writing means rewriting.  There's no way around it—once you've carefully developed a first draft, you must revise, tighten, and polish more than once to have a top-notch piece.