Write right - learn to write like a pro
I've seen some shockingly bad pieces of writing put out by major organizations. One film preview, by a movie channel which shall remain nameless, was so appallingly bad that I assumed it must have been written by a six year old who'd never seen the film - or the inside of an English classroom!
Writing well is a skill, but it is one you can develop with practice. Over fifteen years of doing it for a living, I've picked up a lot of advice and experience. So whether you're a linguistic legend or an appalling apostrophobe, here are my tips to help you write like a pro.
The best thing to do if you want to improve your writing is read. Whether in a high-quality newspaper, book, magazine or website, reading well-crafted, professional writing will improve your own skills. It will increase your vocabulary and help you see how information can be conveyed in an efficient but engaging way. Pay attention to things like word choice, sentence structure and storytelling.
The more good writing you read, the more good writing you'll write.
Rhythm and flow
The main purpose of writing is to convey thoughts from your brain to your reader's. The easier it is to read, the more it gets out of the way of your message. If a reader is constantly backtracking to re-read sections, you're pulling them away from your ideas to look at your words.
Good writing should flow like water, easily taking the reader on a journey through your story. In fact, it should almost sing, as the varying emphases beat out a rhythm.
This is easier to achieve than you might imagine. Get in the habit of reading your writing out loud. It's much easier to hear the beat of the sentences when you speak them. If you stumble over anything, change it. If a sentence doesn't work, approach it from a different direction. For example:
"Bill, carrying two drinks, tripped over Jill's foot, spilling the drinks in the process."
"When Bill tripped over Jill's foot, he spilled the two drinks he was carrying."
"Jill accidentally tripped Bill, who spilled his two drinks."
Play around with options until you find the one that flows best within your narrative.
Once you've done this for a while, you'll be able to 'read out loud' inside your head. When you can do that, you'll naturally start self-editing for rhythm and flow.
Don't use unnecessarily long or complicated words in an attempt to sound more intelligent, sophisticated or formal. There are two very good reasons for this:
- Your reader may not understand the word and feel a bit stupid
- You might use it wrongly and look a bit stupid.
As a rule, stick to words you would normally use in conversation. If you need to use a word you're not absolutely sure of, check it out first at dictionary.com or the online Cambridge Dictionaries.
Also, don't use more words than you need. If a sentence feels too long, take out one word at a time until it stops making sense. Then put back the last word you took out.
One of the easiest ways to improve your writing is to watch out for overused words. Words which are overused can be distracting from the other words around them, so choose your words carefully. Thesaurus.com is your friend.
In particular, look out for too many ands in a sentence. If your sentence runs on and on and you have to think about where it started and by the end you're a bit lost and confused - break it up into two or three sentences instead.
It might be helpful to make a list of words you tend to overuse yourself and keep it to hand. 'That' and 'so' are common examples, but most people have their own, often specific to their job. Having a list of them nearby helps make you aware when you use them.
You might know what you mean, but that doesn't mean your reader does. If Liz pushes her glasses up her nose, is that going to help her see better or require a trip to the hospital? Make sure there's not another way to interpret what you're trying to say. If in doubt, ask someone else to read it for you and check that your intentions are clear.
Past, present or future - pick one and stick to it. Mixing up tenses can be very confusing. You started in the past tense then you‚Äôll go into the future and now you're lost. Never change tense within a sentence and, generally, stick to the same tense throughout a piece, unless there's a good reason not to.
As a general rule, try to use an active voice rather than a passive one. An active voice involves the first subject in the sentence doing something, while a passive voice involves them having something done to them. For example, "Joan called Amy" is better than "Amy was called by Joan". "The report was undermined by a lack of statistics" is passive, while "more statistics would have improved the report" is active. Active voices are generally considered to be more engaging and they may also have the benefit of making you seem more assertive yourself.
Twitter user Rebecca Johnson (@johnsonr) introduced an excellent way of testing whether you have a passive or active voice. If you can insert the phrase 'by zombies' after the verb in your sentence and it still makes sense, you have a passive voice.
In conversation, your natural pauses, emphases and tone of voice help make your meaning clear. All of that is lost when you're communicating in writing. The role of punctuation is to replace those missing subtleties and ensure your audience takes the correct meaning from your words.
A comma is an extremely useful tool in that regard. Think of it as a pause, which is there to identify to your reader that the information before the comma is not directly linked to the information after it. Take the following two sentences as an example:
"We should run over, David."
"We should run over David."
The first is clearly a suggestion to David. The second is rather more sinister.
The other place where a comma is essential is to clearly separate an additional comment in the middle of a sentence. For example:
"Cooking, my favourite stress buster, is a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon."
"Cooking my favourite stress buster is a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon."
The first adds information that cooking is the writer's favourite stress buster; the second makes you hope their favourite stress buster isn't the family pet.
The apostrophe is arguably the most troublesome punctuation mark. If trying to remember when to use one or not sends you into paroxysms of fear, stay calm - there are five easy rules to remember.
- If a word is a conjunction of two other words (e.g. it is; let us; can not) then an apostrophe replaces the missing letters (e.g. it‚'s; let's; can't). However, both 'lets' and 'its' also have different meanings in which they do not come with an apostrophe. If in doubt, see if you can make the word into two other words without changing the meaning of the sentence. If so, you need an apostrophe. If not, then you don't.
- If a word is plural (it describes more than one of something) it never needs an apostrophe (e.g. a dozen books; singing songs; forgotten dances).
- If a word is possessive (it describes something belonging to someone or something) it almost always needs an apostrophe (e.g. Susan's books; the band's songs; the evening's dances).
- If a word is both plural and possessive, and ends in an ''s' the apostrophe goes after the 's' - rather than before (e.g. the authors' photos, the albums' covers, the dancers' routines).
- The exceptions to rule number three are 'his', 'hers' - yours' - 'theirs'- and 'its' none of which need an apostrophe. A useful memory aid may be: The apostrophe is not his, hers, yours, theirs or its.
For more advice on correct punctuation, and a very funny read, try Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss.
There are many words that sound alike, but are spelled differently. The most commonly misused include:
- Your and you're: You're going to your doom if you mix these up.
- There, their and they're: They're on their way over there.
- Lose and loose: You'll lose if you're loose with your spelling.
- Accept and except: Accept good advice, except when you can't.
- To, too and two: These two need to be right too.
- Of and have: This comes from a mishearing of the contracted form of 'have' e.g. 'should've or could've. Should of‚ ‚could of are always wrong.
Commonly misused words
"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride (1987) 
There are a number of words that have come to be used wrongly in everyday conversation. While usually understood when used incorrectly, you'll always make a better impression if you get them right. For example:
- Quality: quality is a measure, not a description. Offering someone a 'quality product' is like offering them a 'length piece of string' The correct usage, presuming you want to sell the item, is to offer a 'high-quality product'
- Yourself: often used incorrectly in place of the much simpler 'you' in order to sound either more respectful or formal-'yourself‚ should only be used reflexively (e.g. you do it to yourself, you did it yourself). Saying we wanted to run it by yourself before making a decision‚ is wrong.
- Literally: this one's controversial. It literally means that you're speaking absolutely accurately. If you're literally melting you're either the Wicked Witch of the West or Frosty the Snowman. Otherwise, you're figuratively melting- or perhaps -metaphorically melting. However, the definition of 'literally' has recently been updated to include its use as a way to add emphasis to something non-literal. Use it in that sense to a grammar pedant at your own risk!
- Peruse: peruse is often used to mean 'browse' In fact, it means the opposite. Peruse means to read something thoroughly and in detail. Offering someone a document to 'peruse' is asking them to read it carefully, not have a quick skim over it.
- Imply and infer: these are commonly mistaken for each other. If something is left unsaid but clearly communicated, the speaker implies and the listener infers.
- Chronic: chronic does not mean severe, it means something has been ongoing for a long time. A chronic headache is not a bad one, it's one which you have had for a while.
- Concerted: you cannot make a concerted effort on your own. A concerted effort describes two or more people working together, 'in concert - not, as it is often used, to describe a 'concentrated' effort.
Practice makes perfect
Whatever your writing ability, the best way to improve it is the same as with any other skill: practice; practice; practice. If you have a friend or colleague whose writing ability you admire, consider asking them for feedback on pieces before you send them on. The more experience you accumulate, the better your writing will become
 The Princess Bride quotes at: www.imdb.com.
You may also be interested in…
Are your people too busy to learn?
Is “I’m too busy to learn,” a common phrase you hear in your organization?
May 2023Read More
10 things managers should never say - and what to say instead
Do you think before you speak? See our roundup of the top ten things managers should never say to their team members. And tips for what you should've said.
March 2023Read More
How to create a culture of feedback
When’s the last time someone praised your work? Or shared an idea that helped you crack a problem you’d been chewing over?
February 2023Read More
Subscribe to the Podcast
There are so many ways to subscribe to The Mind Tools L&D Podcast. Click your preference below and subscribe.