7 Shortcuts Anyone Can Take to Become a Better Writer
Have you ever met someone who’s a great speaker—but a horrible writer? During meetings and face-to-face conversations, he’s incredibly clear, engaging, and persuasive. Yet, when he’s writing an email or drafting a report, his power of communication seem to vanish completely.
If you suspect this applies to you, even a little, I have good news: I rounded up seven easy-to-follow tips for instantly making your writing abilities just as strong as your speaking skills. Maybe even better!
1. Get Rid of Big Words
You’ve probably heard that using big words doesn’t make you sound smarter; in fact, it has the opposite effect.
But it gets worse. When you use AP English test vocabulary, you put distance between yourself and the person you’re writing to—making you seem like a robot, instead of the warm, friendly human being you are.
To show you what I mean, check out two versions of the same statement:
“I endeavor to consider the customer in everything I do, which is why your corporate philosophy of ‘Put the customer first’ is particularly appealing to me.”
“When I’m working, the customer is always on my mind. That’s why I’d love to work with people who believe in putting the customer first.”
While both versions say the same thing, the latter feels more genuine and has a nicer flow.
2. Use Contractions
When you don’t contract your words, you sound like you’ve stepped out of a Victorian play into 2016. In other words, your writing feels stilted and forced.
Luckily, the fix is easy. Just go through your writing and contract as much as you can.
So, for example, “I cannot talk on Monday at noon, but I am free from 3 PM onwards” would become “I can’t talk at Monday on noon, but I’m free after 3 PM.”
That sounds nicer, right?
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes contractions will be too casual. If you’re writing a contract, a formal report, a grant proposal, or anything else on that level, you’re better off leaving words as is. Otherwise, though, shorten away!
3. Call a Friend
I’ll let you in on one of my biggest writing secrets: When I’m working on something that really needs to be good—a cover letter, important report, big request—I’ll pick up the phone, call some friends, and read my draft aloud.
I’m not really looking for suggestions (although if I get them, awesome). Instead, I’m trying to force myself to write how I speak—and like I said, it’s usually easier to explain your thoughts out loud than on paper.
Maybe a line in my email goes, “Your incredibly helpful blog posts have informed many of the decisions I’ve made on my path to becoming a content marketer.”
If I said that to a friend, we’d both burst out laughing. I never talk like that in “real life.”
Here’s how I’d actually put it: “I check your blog for new posts almost every day. First, you helped me figure out I wanted to be a content marketer, then you showed me how to do it.”
If you can’t call a friend, try saying each sentence out loud before you type it. Or, pull up the recording app on your phone, and “talk out” the entire piece—then go back and write down what you recorded (cleaning it up a little, of course).
4. Use Clichés (Within Reason)
You might’ve heard that using clichés weakens your writing. But unless you’re a bestselling author, a well-chosen one every now and then will help you get your point across. (Plus, I’m a professional writer, and I still use them.)
Let’s compare two sentences, one with a cliché and one without:
“I know you’re worried about the budget, but let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.”
“I know you’re worried about the budget, but let’s discuss that at a later date.”
You can immediately see which one reads more reassuringly (after all, this hypothetical person’s concerned about the budget)—and it’s the first.
Like contractions, these can occasionally be too casual, so take your audience into account before you use them.
5. Use the Active Voice Instead of the Passive Voice
Most rules have exceptions, but you should almost never violate this one. The passive voice makes your writing wordy, complicated, and harder to follow.
See what I mean:
“Our product is used by people who want to become better managers.”
“Our product helps people become better managers.”
The second point reads so much more easily. Oh, and if you have trouble remembering the difference between passive and active voice, use Professor Rebecca Johnson’s trick—“If you can insert ‘by zombies’ after the verb, it’s passive.” (Best grammar tip you’ve heard in a while, right?)
6. Stop Worrying About Prepositions
I went through a phase where I’d avoid ending a sentence with a preposition at all costs because, well, rules are rules. As a result, I ended up with some really weird sentences.
Like this one:
“Address your cover letter to whomever will be managing you.”
“With which tools are you already familiar?”
Thankfully, modern grammarians agree you can end sentences with prepositions, so we can all stop worrying about getting in trouble with our eighth grade English teachers.
7. Make an Outline
You should develop outlines if:
You tend to ramble
You have a hard time connecting your ideas
You spend lots of time reorganizing your work after it’s done
Not only will having this document keep you on-track and organized, it’ll also make the editing process much shorter.
I personally use them all the time for blog posts, reports, cover letters, and even emails. Where a long draft makes it harder to see your thoughts, an outline helps you see right away where you’re being clear—and where you could use some help.
Not only will these seven tips improve your writing, but they’ll also help it sound like it comes from you—not some professional robot.