Improve your Writing: Show, Not Tell
How to Improve Written Communication
Improving your written communication is an important goal regardless of your profession or stage of life. Learning how to choose the right words, constructing paragraphs that are structured correctly, avoiding common grammar mistakes, and writing concisely will help you to become a better writer and effectively communicate your ideas to a variety of audiences.
Writing the Right Words
Take your audience into account.It’s important to choose the right words depending on your audience. For example, you should use formal language when sending an email to your boss or drafting a cover letter for a job application. Save your informal language, such as beginning an email with “Hey,” for close friends and family.
Explain unfamiliar concepts, terms, and data when necessary.Choosing the right words also means explaining them to audiences who may be unfamiliar with particular words or phrases.
- For example, if you are writing about a new technology, you may need to explain the technical terms that appear in your paper or email as your audience may not have encountered them in the past.
- In other cases, though, your audience may be familiar with the technical terms so you would not need to explain them.
Know the definition of the word you are using.One of the most common mistakes in written communication is misusing a particular word. Oftentimes you may think a word means one thing, but it in fact means something entirely different.
- For example, you might write that Native Americans are not a monotonous culture, when in fact you mean that Native Americans are not a homogenous culture.
- Ask yourself, “Am I sure I know the definition of this word?”
- Use a dictionary to look up the definitions are words whose meaning you are not quite sure about.
Beware of undesirable connotations.Sometimes you will write a sentence without realizing that your choice of words is delivering an unwanted meaning. For example, you might write, “I looked inside the boy’s private place,” when in fact you meant, “I looked around the boy’s hiding place.”
Stay away from clichés.A cliché is a phrase that has been overused to the extent that it has lost its original effect or meaning. These trite and often stereotypes expressions should be avoided if you’re aiming to improve your written communication skills. Instead of writing, “in this day and age,” try writing, “today” or “presently.” Instead of writing, “dead as a door nail,” just write, “dead.”
Choose the right words and structures for each specific form of writing.It’s important to understand that different types of written communication have different requirements. An email, for example, has different requirements than a corporate report. A letter to an insurance company, similarly, will be written differently than a set of guidelines for employees.
Constructing Structured Paragraphs
Begin each paragraph with a topic sentence.A topic sentence states the paragraph’s main idea. It helps your reader recognize the topic of the paragraph and what they might expect to read in the paragraph. While advanced writers may not introduce the paragraph’s topic until the middle or end of the paragraph, it’s a good idea for those developing their writing skills to include a topic sentence at the paragraph’s beginning.
- For instance, if you are writing a paragraph on different breeds of dogs, you could begin with a topic sentence such as, “There are two hundred different breeds of dogs.”
Use body sentences to develop the topic of the paragraph.Once you’ve introduced the content of a paragraph with a topic sentence, use the next 2 to 3 sentences to describe, analyze, and compare data, events, or quotations as they relate to the topic of your paragraph.
- Body sentences are where you will include and analyze any evidence you are presenting in your paragraph, or provide details about an event, person, or situation.
End with a concluding sentence.After you’ve introduced the paragraph’s scope or argument in a topic sentence and analyzed or presented data and evidence in the body sentences, conclude with a concluding sentence. This is where you wrap up your ideas and major points before moving on to the next section of the paper or article you are composing.
Avoiding Common Grammar Mistakes
Use an apostrophe to show possession.One of the most common grammar mistakes is the improper use of an apostrophe. Remember that an apostrophe shows ownership or possession.
- For example, if you are talking about the television your husband owns, you should not write “my husbands television.” You should write “my husband’s television.”
- If a noun does not end in s, add ‘s to the end of the noun. For example, if you are talking about the paws of a dog, write, “the dog’s paws.”
- If the noun is plural and already ends in s, just add an apostrophe. For example, if you are talking about the paws of two dogs, write, “the dogs’ paws.”
Follow capitalization rules.Proper nouns and the words formed from them should always be capitalized. You should always capitalize names, countries, cities, states, nationalities, languages, educational institutions, educational degrees, government departments, political parties, and trade or brand names.
- You should also capitalize the first word of a sentence as well as the first word of a quote.
Watch out for sentence fragments.A common grammar mistake is the use of incomplete sentences, also known as sentence fragments. Each sentence that is punctuated should be a complete thought and be able to stand on its own as a sentence.
Use the same verb tense consistently.Avoid switching between tenses in a single sentence or paragraph. Generally, you should use the same tense consistently throughout a piece of writing.
- For instance, don’t say, “It is raining and the clouds were dark.” Instead, try, “It is raining and the clouds are dark,” or “It was raining and the clouds were dark.”
- Exceptions do occur! For instance, if you are writing a paper in the present tense, it’s fine to switch to past tense for a flashback or anecdote.
Avoid wordiness.Writing concisely means you must convey your message in as few words as necessary. Eliminate any extra or unnecessary words that convolute your message. For example, don’t write, “I am emailing concerning the matter of your last report.” Instead try writing, “I am emailing about your last report.”
- Try substituting “regardless of the fact that” with a simple “although.” If you feel the urge to write “due to the fact that,” try writing “because” instead.
Don’t use redundant pairs of words.Combining pairs of words with similar meaning should be avoided. Doing so only clutters the sentence and does little to convey your message. Examples of redundant pairs include sudden crisis, each individual, future plans, and past history. Don’t write, “The true facts of the case are clear.” Instead try writing, “The facts of the case are clear.”
Eliminate meaningless words.You should not use words that do not add meaning or have relevance to the sentence. Words like obviously, basically, very, really, and clearly should be eliminated from effective written communication. For example, you should not write, “Actually, Amanda kind of looked at the elephant when it was basically urinating.” Instead write, “Amanda looked at the elephant while it was urinating.”
- Words like “actually” can be used to indicate contrariness.
Substitute a single word for a phrase.Oftentimes you can eliminate an entire phrase by simply replacing it with a single word. For example, phrases like “in the event that” and “under circumstances in which” can be replaced with the word “if.”
- This may be unnecessary depending upon the purpose, audience, and style of writing.
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