Three Tips for Better Writing
Writing is something that many of us do in one way or another. Whether writing for work or school, or typing emails or text messages: it’s all writing. Writing well, however, is not always the easiest thing to do. There are many “rules” about grammar, sentence structure and word use that can seem quite confusing at first. But fear not, this short guide gives you three tips to help improve your writing without swamping you with technical jargon.
“After all, art is often about breaking the rules.”
1. Active voice
Aim to use an active voice. An active voice makes a sentence direct, more appealing and more personal. A sentence using an active voice usually takes the grammatical form of subject-verb. For example: “The dog sat on the log” uses an active voice. In contrast, “The log was sat on by the dog” uses a passive voice. A passive sentence normally uses more words to get to the point, and also feels impersonal. So, using an active voice whenever possible, can enhance your writing.
Limit the use of adverbs. An adverb is a word that modifies another word by adding expression or dimension to it. For example, in the sentence “The dog barked loudly,” the word loudly is an adverb that modifies the word barked to express the intensity the dog’s bark. Adverbs should be used sparingly, particularly when writing fiction or professional documents because they can take away, rather than add, substance to a text. For example, instead of saying “The dog barked loudly,” you could say “The dog’s bark awoke the neighbours.” The second sentence adds more substance, making it obvious that the dog’s bark was loud enough to wake the neighbours up. If the dog’s bark was soft, it wouldn’t have awoken the neighbours. Stephen King talks about limiting the use of adverbs in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
Use shorter sentences. Short sentences have more impact and are easier to read than long sentences. When writing for a digital medium like screen, it is a good idea to keep sentences below 10 to 15 words. For a hardcopy medium, like a book or printed document, sentences should be kept below 15 to 20 words in length. Sentence length should also vary. As you can see in this paragraph, I alternate between longer and shorter sentences. Doing so helps make the text more interesting and readable. Sometimes, however, an author will use longer sentences on purpose for a desired effect. The classic novel, Ulysses by James Joyce, for example, contains one of the longest sentences in literature.
In summary, aiming to use an active voice, shorter sentences and less adverbs can help to enhance your writing. Of course, none of these are hard and fast rules — they merely serve as a guide. It all depends on the context, the audience and the purpose of your writing. Composing a work of fiction is different to writing an online article or a report for school or work. Sometimes an author makes the decision to break the “rules” and create something entirely different. After all, art is often about breaking the rules. And, in the end, the beauty is that it’s the author’s choice.