5 Tips for Improving Your Writing So People Can Understand You

August 2nd, 2010

When I taught English some years back, a student asked me: “How do I know if my English is good?”

I answered, “People can understand you.”

I think this goes especially for writing.  I’ve seen more bad writing than I care to admit.  But here’s the thing: most people aren’t trying to write the great American novel.  They just want to communicate. So, when I worked with people on their writing, I didn’t sit there and nitpick their every little mistake.

I just made sure their writing was clear. Clarity has always been my guiding principle in writing.

One reason I rail against buzzwords and jargon is that they are usually unclear.  The writer doesn’t know exactly what they mean and the reader probably doesn’t want to sound dumb by asking “WTF?”

So, today I thought I would give you some simple tips I’ve used over the years to be a clearer writer.

1. Write shorter sentences

A lot of my “corporate” buddies think that sentence length is a measure of intelligence.  It is.  The longer the sentence, the more your reader becomes confused (ever wonder why contracts and insurance .

Why would you want to confuse your reader?

I use the rule:  one idea; one sentence.

2. Know the difference between words that sound alike

These can kill you. I write for a living and I occasionally make some of these mistakes.  And you’ll make them too because your spellchecker can’t help you with words that are spelled correctly but used incorrectly.

The top three mechanical errors I find are:

You’re, your

You’re=you are

Your=possessive of you

You’re saying this is your watch?

They’re, their, there

They’re going to their house, which is over there.

It’s, its

It’s=it is, its= possessive of it

It’s looking at its house.

Some typical word confusions:

  • Affect/effect
  • Accept/except
  • Already/all ready
  • Discrete/discreet
  • Fourth/forth
  • Then/than
  • Principal/principle
  • Wave/waive

3. Get rid of adjectives and adverbs

I had a philosophy professor who once told me that if I want to write philosophy I should take out all adjectives and adverbs and “just say what the hell it is you want to say.”

Try it one time.  Ask yourself: if I cut this word, will the sentence lose its meaning?  If the answer is no, delete!

4. Write in the active voice

As I noted the other day about how the media uses the passive voice to report BS as fact, the passive voice is the enemy of clarity.

Mistakes were made.

I made a mistake.

Which sentence is clearer?

Or try this:

This bread was baked by my mother.

My mother baked this bread.

With few exceptions, the active voice will make your writing clearer.

5. Brush up on your punctuation—especially commas!

Punctuation may seem like a nitpicky thing to talk about, but let me tell you: punctuation makes ALL the difference.  Perhaps you know the story of the English professor who wrote on the blackboard “Woman without her man is nothing” and directed his students to punctuate it correctly.

The men wrote: “Woman, without her man, is nothing.”

The women wrote: “Woman: Without her, man is nothing.”

As you can see, the punctuation changes the meaning of the sentence .  Commas, especially, cause a lot of problems.

But unless you write professionally, I don’t think you need to pour over the grammar books on this one.  I recommend The Elements of Style.  The cool thing is you can read it for free online here.  It’s short and you can read it in an hour or less.

So, now go out there and write!

Note:  if there is some grammar Nazi out there who has the time to go through this post looking for mistakes, feel free to do so.  If you find one, good for you. I hope I made your day.

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