13 Simple Tips of Becoming a Better Writer
Harvard linguist Steven Pinker provided Twitter some tips on how to become a better writer. Pinker is well known for several linguistic theories such as the theory of language acquisition in children. He has also written an English style guide titled The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century that applies science to the process of writing.
While his tips are concise, we’re going to break some of them down with examples to help you understand them better. Here are the 13 tips from Steven Pinker:
Reverse-engineer what you read. If it feels like good writing, what makes it good? If it’s awful, why?
Examining the works you read gives you good examples on what to follow and what to avoid. Look at the way information is presented and how the writer organises their points. Reading critically is not only limited to what is being given, but how it is given as well.
Prose is a window onto the world. Let your readers see what you are seeing by using visual, concrete language.
Concrete language appeals to tangible ideas and the reader’s senses. It makes your points easier to digest as the reader can imagine what you are trying to say. For instance, describing sensory details like ‘cold’ and ‘humid’ instead of ‘uncomfortable’.
Don’t go meta. Minimize concepts about concepts, like “approach, assumption, concept, condition, context, framework, issue, level, model, perspective, process, range, role, strategy, tendency,” and “variable.”
When writing, it is important to be concise. Discussing ideas about ideas, such as more complex frameworks, can be confusing to readers. Pick out relevant information and be direct so your work is approachable. Only go meta if you are supposed to.
Let verbs be verbs. “Appear,” not “make an appearance.”
Verbs describe an action, state or occurrence. Powerful verbs carry a lot of power as they can create a stronger visual and atmosphere. Simplifying your sentences not only creates impact, but also focuses on the main point without obscuring the reader.
Beware of the Curse of Knowledge: When you know something, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it. Minimize acronyms and technical terms. Use “for example” liberally. Show a draft around, and prepare to learn that what’s obvious to you may not be obvious to anyone else.
Jargon and technical terms often put people off. It’s a hassle to look up for additional context and it breaks the flow of reading as well. Think about your audience when you write – do they need the extra information or are the terms already well known?
Omit needless words (Will Strunk was right about this).
Will Strunk published this advice in 1920 in his book The Elements of Style. A century later, this advice still applies. It’s not about short sentences, avoiding details or only providing a summary. Every word in the sentence should be there because it is needed.
Avoid clichés like the plague (thanks, William Safire).
Meant to be ironic, Safire gave this advice to highlight how overused clichés are. These words and phrases are used too often to the point that it is no longer interesting. More often than not, these expressions are not necessary and exist only as padding.
Put old information at the beginning of the sentence, new information at the end.
Sentence structures help create focus. As it is the last thing they read, placing new information at the end helps people remember it easier. Old information placed in the beginning also helps reestablish what we already know.
Save the heaviest for last: A complex phrase should go at the end of the sentence.
To add to the previous tip, putting complex phrases at the end helps ease understanding. As it takes more mental processing power to comprehend, the reader is free from other distractions (the rest of the sentence) to think about it.
Prose must cohere: Readers must know how each sentence is related to the preceding one. If it’s not obvious, use “that is, for example, in general, on the other hand, nevertheless, as a result, because, nonetheless,” or “despite.”
This helps create a ‘flow’ when reading as the connections to other points are made clear.
Revise several times with the single goal of improving the prose.
Revision, while tedious, can help you notice the flaws in your writing. Students skip this step often, only to regret later when they receive comments on minor or careless mistakes.
Read it aloud.
Reading aloud helps you imagine how your text would flow, giving you a chance to make adjustments and rearrangements.
Find the best word, which is not always the fanciest word. Consult a dictionary with usage notes, and a thesaurus.
While using polysyllabic words can seem impressive, readers can tell if a word is used just to be verbose and is ultimately extraneous (like this sentence!). Keep the purpose of your text in mind, fancy words can be distracting and cause readers to miss out on the content of your text.
Need a way to improve your writing? StarWorks will be taking place this December for students from 9 – 15 to work on their writing skills, using current affairs as reference. Students looking for help on their Personal Statement for UK university applications can also take part on our one-day workshop, Writing Your Best Personal Statement.