If you want to improve your writing skills, it takes practice. The more often you write, the more time you have to find your voice, experiment with word choice, and look for ways to make your writing better.
There’s a good chance you’re already doing that, even if it’s writing emails, putting together presentations at work, sharing updates on social media, or writing in a journal every night before bed. These are small opportunities to improve your writing skills.
Many new writers get discouraged because they think their writing needs a complete overhaul. In reality, better writing often comes down to a few tiny tweaks. We’ve put together a list of some of the most common edits we make when working with writers. These are small changes you can make to your own writing to instantly make it better. Of course, good writing is subjective, so these rules might not always apply. But as the saying goes, learn the rules so you know when to break them.
1. Use contractions
Avoiding contractions can make your writing sound overly formal. This isn’t always a bad thing, but more often than not, it reads like a book report. For example:
“I am sitting in a cafe overlooking the Thames. There is a man on a bicycle. He is riding it toward the river.”
Let’s see how the sentence changes with contractions:
“I’m sitting in a cafe overlooking the Thames. There’s a man on a bicycle. He’s riding it toward the river.”
Sure, some writers might prefer the former. To some extent, this is a matter of taste and context, but in most cases, contractions give your writing a bit more style and keep it from sounding stiff.
2. Avoid jargon
Know your audience! If you know your entire audience will understand the technical terms you’re using, it might make sense to use jargon. If you’re writing for a more general audience, however, try to avoid using jargon as if it’s widely understood. A few ways to do this:
- Use a different word. “Retirement accounts” instead of “tax-advantaged IRA”
- Briefly explain the word. “An IRA is a retirement account that has tax advantages.”
- Spell it out. “An IRA, or individual retirement account, has certain tax advantages.”
Too many technical terms can make your audience lose interest, so know when to use jargon and when to keep it simple.
3. Remove repetitive words or phrases
It’s easy to write the way we speak, but this can lead to repetitive phrases in your writing. For example:
“In my opinion, I think the presentation needs some additional edits and changes.”
Let’s simplify this sentence: “In my opinion, the presentation needs some changes” or even just “the presentation needs some changes.”
Sometimes you may need filler words to keep a polite tone, but for the most part, good writing is efficient writing. Only use the words you need to convey your tone, communicate your opinion, or set your scene. Some writers prefer flowery language, and that’s okay — just make sure the reader doesn’t get lost in your sentence and forget what they’re reading.
4. Use stronger adjectives
You need adjectives to tell a good story, but weak adjectives can take away from that story and muddy up your writing. For example:
- Before: Your cat is extremely cute.
After: Your cat is adorable.
- Before: She struggled to sit through the very boring presentation.
After: She struggled to sit through the tedious presentation.
- Before: That’s really funny.
After: That’s hilarious.
Notice how adverbs like “very” or “really” or “extremely” usually come before a weak adjective. You can get rid of both and replace them with a stronger alternative.
5. Break up long sentences
It’s hard to write clearly when you jam too many ideas into a single sentence. Sometimes long sentences serve a purpose, but oftentimes these sentences read like they could be three sentences all at once. These individual mini sentences have a name: An independent clause.
An independent clause is part of a sentence that can stand as a sentence on its own. For example, there are two independent clauses in the following sentence, underlined: The cow jumped over the moon, and I watched it happen from my bedroom window.
If you’ve written a sentence that feels long and meandering, chances are, there are multiple independent clauses in that sentence. Try breaking them up into two or more separate sentences and see if that adds clarity. For example, let’s take this long and meandering sentence:
Before: The cow jumped over the moon, and I watched it happen from my bedroom window because I left my blinds open yesterday after washing the windows, and before I went to bed, I forgot to shut them.
Here’s a cleaner version:
After: The cow jumped over the moon. I watched it happen from my bedroom window because I left my blinds open yesterday after washing the windows. Before I went to bed, I forgot to shut them.
Breaking up the sentence allows the reader to process what’s happening and stick with you as you tell your story or make your point. Not every sentence has to be the same length. Some can be short. Others can be long and contain multiple independent clauses. Varied sentence structure makes for much more interesting writing because it helps with pacing and narration.
6. Remove qualifiers
A qualifier is a word or phrase that waters down a sentence and makes it unnecessarily vague. For example:
- There are some common mistakes even experienced writers make.
- I am absolutely sure I’ve never seen this before in my life.
In the first sentence, “some” doesn’t serve a purpose. Let’s take it out:
“There are common mistakes even experienced writers make.”
That’s much more direct. In the second sentence, the phrase “absolutely sure” is a qualifier that’s meant to make the sentence sound even more absolute, but it actually takes away from the directness. “I’ve never seen this before in my life” is a stronger statement, as it uses fewer words to get to the point. Here’s a list of common qualifiers.
7. Opt for positive language
No, not because you’re an eternal optimist — positive language is usually more direct than its negative counterpart. For example:
- Before: If you don’t complete your homework assignments, you won’t be able to learn to write succinctly.
- After: Complete your homework assignments so you can learn to write succinctly.
Notice how the second sentence is active whereas the first is passive and indirect.
8. Cut the cliches
It’s easy to fall back on cliches in your writing. You’ve seen them — like a kid in a candy store, on cloud nine, at the speed of light. Cutting and replacing cliches is an easy way to instantly improve your writing skills. For example:
“When I walked into the yarn shop, I was like a kid in a candy store.”
Let’s find a different way to say “I was excited”:
“When I walked into the yarn shop, I stopped in my tracks and stared at all the brightly colored rows.”
Readers tend to glaze over cliches because they’ve read them so many times before. Cliches can make your writing sound amateur. A simple swap can add much more depth and detail to a sentence.
9. Use a grammar plugin
Grammar is complicated and — let’s face it — even experienced writers need a little help. We certainly recommend learning basic grammatical rules, but even experienced writers can find it difficult to catch mistakes.
We recommend using a grammar plugin to catch these mistakes, and Grammarly is probably the most popular option. It’s like spellcheck for your grammatical mistakes and, like spellcheck, it will offer suggestions. We’re also fans of the Hemingway Editor web app, which is a bit more style-focused. It allows you to copy and paste your writing straight into their website, then highlights sentences and phrases that could use some work. Best of all, both tools have a free option.
Getting too caught up in the rules can be debilitating and keep you from getting anything on the page. Don’t worry about following rules or making changes in your first draft — just get something on the page. Write now and edit later.