Welcome to another new year! You can almost smell the resolutions in the air, can’t you? (They smell like cinnamon for some reason.) If one of your goals in 2014 is to be a better writer, the easiest and most effective way to improve is to practice every day by starting a blog or keeping a journal. However, if you’re practicing bad writing habits, you may be doing more harm than good. Here are six ways you can improve your writing skills this year:
Cut the Clutter. Work on cutting back the filler words that crop up in your writing far too often. For a truly eye-opening experience, try plugging a sample of your writing into Wordle. This web-based tool creates word clouds based on your text. You might be surprised by the results; many of us write “invisible” words like that or very without realizing it.
Wage War on Clichés. While clichés are just another type of word clutter, they deserve special mention here. Cut hackneyed phrases like “easy as pie” or “selling like hotcakes,” but watch out for the mindless, off-the-top-of-your head expressions and metaphors, too. These might not be clichés for every writer, but your go-to phrases will go stale for your readers after the second (or fifth) time you write them.
Learn the Rules. For most people, learning about grammar and composition ends as soon as they hand in their final English term paper. Unless you’re a self-professed word nerd like the team here at Grammarly, you probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about commas and semicolons. This year, make a conscious choice to refresh your skills. There are a lot of user-friendly grammar guides out there, including the classic Elements of Style and the more modern, tongue-in-cheek Eats, Shoots & Leaves. If you prefer to listen to your lessons, check out Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl podcast.
Read Out Loud. Reading your work out loud might feel like you’ve been sent back to middle school at first, but according to Jenna Britton in Forbes, “As silly as you may feel, it’s the best way to make sure what you’ve written makes sense. Anything that doesn’t flow, is confusing, or is missing a word or two will quickly make itself apparent.”
Write, Wait, Revise. There are two bad writing habits on opposite ends of the spectrum, but the solution to both is the same. If you find yourself meticulously editing while you write (and getting frustrated with how slow your progress is) or if you blaze through a draft and immediately hit print/send/publish, you’re skipping a very important step. Writing, like good cheese, should be left to age someplace out of sight for a while. The exact resting period will vary based on the length and type of project—a casual work email might need to rest for a coffee break, while a novel will need at least a week or two in the desk drawer—but the goal is to give yourself some space from your work before trying to edit it.
Plan Before Pen. If you plunk yourself down at the keyboard with only a vague idea about what you want to write, you’ll waste valuable time running down dead ends. Just as editing is a separate task from writing, so too is planning. Ray Edwards advises knowing your reader and your objective before you start writing. By knowing who you’re writing for and what you want to accomplish (which Edwards calls your Most Wanted Result or MWR), it forces you to “write with crystal-clear focus.” That focus will improve both the quality and speed of your writing.
What are your writing goals for 2014? Share them in the comments!