communication, education, language, learning, organization

Effective Writing – a primer

There are many reasons for writing. One can write an online blog, a book, a magazine article, a letter to a government agency or company complaining about a service, a term paper, a letter to the editor, an application to college, an application for a job, and/or much more. Yet, while each of these has its own specific requirements, there are some general rules one can follow to be a demonstrably good writer and a more effective one. Here are some of those rules (with a caveat that this listing is a work in progress). Please note that items listed need not be done in any specific order and not all items may fit a particular writing activity (i.e., as appropriate is the rule that dominates).

  1. Recognize the type of writing you will be doing. If someone else defined the requirements for the writing, be sure to follow them. As appropriate, use personal and/or professional formats. For a job application, you will want to sell yourself; for a scientific journal article, you’ll want to document references and build to a valid, objective conclusion. If there are article or letter length requirements, follow these or your written efforts may be discarded. For example, one southwest Florida newspaper caps letters to the editor at 275 words. Write a 300 plus word letter and it won’t get published!
  2. Think about the message you want to convey. Why is it important that someone read about it? This holds for everything, even personal blogs.
  3. Start with a strong introductory sentence, and build from there. This ensures that the first part of your first paragraph, or your entire first paragraph, serves to grab the reader’s attention. In writing, this is known as a “hook.”
  4. Introduce your topic in the first paragraph. Ensure that the storyline builds appropriately.
  5. Provide strong supporting statements and/or links/references to prop up your main discussion. This enhances your discussion and also provides the reader with additional reading material, should they desire to learn more about your topic.
  6. Throughout, use active voice and action verbs (e.g., reading, working, organizing) rather than passive voice or “to be” verbs (e.g., was, had been, should).
  7. Avoid over-using transitional words (e.g., however, moreover, furthermore, therefore), and ending sentences with prepositions (e.g., “it’s what we talked about.”).
  8. Don’t repeat words and/or phrases; the English language has a plethora of adjectives, nouns, and verbs. Use them!
  9. Check grammar and spelling throughout (but don’t just rely on a computer-based spelling or grammar checker). Ensure that verb and subject are in agreement.
  10. Be clear and concise.
  11. Proofread your document more than once (keying on spelling, grammar, storyline, factual information, and unit conversions). This includes reading your writing out loud and/or having colleagues, family members or others proofread it, as well. If you are embarrassed to read aloud around other people, go to a quiet place to do so.
  12. Use an editing functionality (like “track changes” in Microsoft Word) to allow you to see changes as you make them, while still allowing the original text to remain. You can always accept changes at any point in the review/edit process (Fig. 1).
  13. Check for and eliminate “run-on” sentences. These are sentences that are, simply put, far too lengthy. A good rule of thumb for detecting these, keys on having to pause and take a breath while reading the sentence out loud. That pause point can suggest a location for a needed period or semi-colon.
  14. To be continued… Updates to this list will follow in the coming months. Stay tuned and check back for more!

We ask that readers of this article consider sharing other ideas for enhancing effective writing with us. We’ll consider all ideas that we receive.

In advance, thanks.

© 2017 H. Michael Mogil and Matt Bolton

Originally posted 7/27/17

* Although we have been proactive advocates of writing for many years, this article has resulted from activities conducted at our Southwest Florida Weather Camp Program during July 2017.