Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.
Can a few writing tips for beginners help you write more clearly – and shorten your learning curve in the process? You bet.
And these tips aren’t just for beginners. I’ve been writing for a couple of decades and refer to this list all the time. Even if you’re a writer with a bit of experience or a seasoned pro, these tips offer easy fixes to common writing mistakes – mistakes that muddy your content.
And by all means, you want to write clear content rather than a muddied mess. Readers don’t want to be confused when they’re looking for answers. They don’t want to work too hard when they’re skimming online or browsing an article. When you write clearly, readers may not consciously think, “This writer is easy to read,” but they’ll keep reading. In contrast, wordy writing frustrates readers and leads them to dump your content for sharper, more concise reading pastures.
Thanks to my language arts teachers in school, I had a good foundation in writing fundamentals. They infused me with the writing basics: how write a topic sentence … how to be grammatically correct … why I should use complete sentences. All sound advice.
But when I started writing content, I wish I’d had these writing tips for beginners. These days, the “rules” are different when writing online. As for many of us in this internet-focused world, my academic writing life has given way to conversational writing where clarity (not highbrow verbal one-upmanship) is key.
That’s why I find this checklist helpful in my writing life. I hope it helps save you time as you develop your writing skills. And more importantly, if you use these tips you’ll write more clearly.
Wherever possible, avoid variations of “be” words like is, am, was, are. Instead, use active verbs – those that demonstrate activity.
Compare these two sentences. Which one paints a clearer picture in your mind?
Yes, I chose #2 also.
Go a step further and use descriptive verbs for stronger writing. Break out your thesaurus and choose vivid words rather than hackneyed ones. For instance, compare …
When the subject of your sentence isn’t the one taking the action, your writing is disjointed. It’s called passive construction or passive voice.
Here’s an example: “The road was crossed by the chicken.” The road isn’t doing anything, but it’s got center stage. Meanwhile, the chicken doesn’t appear to be doing much either, even though it’s the one taking its legs across the street. The sentence is weak.
But passive voice to active voice is a quick fix. Simply ask yourself, “Who or what is taking action?” Then switch up the words so the subject of your sentence is the one that’s moving and shaking– as in, “The chicken crossed the road.” The sentence is stronger.
Bonus: active voice uses fewer words, too. Concise writing is clearer writing.
Variety is the spice of life – and sentence variety spices up your content, too. When you use a mix of different kinds of sentences, your content takes on a conversational voice.
Write a longer sentence, like this one, to explain a bigger idea. Then follow it with a short one. Or break up extra-long sentences into two or even three parts. Include a couple of mid-length sentences for variety.
You can also vary your sentences when you write a run-on sentence to show a series of ideas or to string together related thoughts – or even to write like you talk (as I did here.) Or throw in a sentence fragment. Like this.
Parallel lines are set side by side with the same distance between them. Parallel ideas have the same direction or nature. Likewise, as a writing device, parallel structure groups phrases together using same part of speech, the same verb tense, or the same subject-verb agreement.
It’s one of those subtle undercurrents that make for quality content writing. When it’s there, it’s not noticeable. But when your lists or sequences are not parallel, your writing feels awkward or disorganized.
Compare these two lists. The first one is not parallel – some items start with a noun, others with a verb, others with a preposition. The second list is a good example of parallelism. Notice how each item starts with a noun.
Use parallel construction in …
It wasn’t unusual for me to pad my high school essays with extra verbiage. Doing so made me believe – mistakenly – that I sounded smarter and I was getting my point across more clearly. Plus, the excess allowed me to fill up the page and reach the required word count.
For all intents and purposes, those extra words simply get in the way.
It’s phrases like “for all intents and purposes” that are unnecessary and add zilch to my point. The sentence above is cleaner like this: Those extra words simply get in the way.
Be ruthless with your red pen. Go through your content and discard redundant words and phrases. You can make a game of it and see how tight you can write. You’ll know you’re not slashing too much if your writing advances your point even after you’ve ditched the extra words.
Weasel words equivocate. They are vague qualifiers like generally, most, and probably that weaken your writing. Writers use weasel words to avoid making direct statements. You may think you can fudge your way through writing by using fuzzy language. Don’t. If you’re fairly sure you’re likely to be wishy-washy as you write, then somehow make a reasonably good effort to edit as many weasels as you virtually can.
Awesome. Phenomenal. Amazing. Exciting. If you find your content is packed with exaggerations, then remove all the biggest and best and even just great superlatives. Instead, use descriptive details or impressive facts to make your point.
Jargon is specialty language used by niche insiders. Think medical terms used by healthcare professionals or legalese tossed back and forth by attorneys and judges. If you sprinkle insider jargon throughout your content, the typical reader gets confused. Eyes glaze over. Soon, she is lost. Clear, readable writing is a mark of quality content. Jargon hinders clarity.
The exceptions are when you write an academic essay or an article for a scholarly journal.
But what about when your content addresses technical niche issue in your niche? I write about topics that are specific to writing. For instance, I can’t back away from writing about a book’s back matter or explaining how to write above the fold. But since back matter and above the fold are terms that are specific to writers, I work to define such jargon in everyday terms. My goal is to guide the reader to understanding, rather than confuse her.
Don’t say your character is thinking outside the box. Show how he is trying something new and succeeding. Comb through your content for phrases that are as old as the hills and swap them for original descriptors in the nick of time. I’m sure you get my drift.
These writing tips for beginners are not just for newbies. They’re helpful for everybody who is on a journey to write more clearly … sharpen their content … polish their writing.
“Writing is a craft that you can learn by practicing,” says New York Times best-selling author Lauren Tarshis. “If you keep writing, you will improve.”
These tips help you to do so. And on a shorter time frame.
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