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The Basics

If you can read this, you can probably write in a way that is understood by most people.  If you write a blog for friends and family alone, you may not care a lot about how effectively you can get complicated points across – they’ll understand.  But if you want to get the attention of people you don’t know, either to inform them or to convince them, you have to understand your readers and get into their heads before they realize it.

The only real rule is that quality writing is not about the writer.  No matter how clever you think you are, your reader decides how effective you are.  That’s the craft in quality writing, a practice  just like the skill of a surgeon.  Below are some simple things to think about as you practice your art.

Read: Read as much as you can.  Nothing is more important than getting to know what writing works its way into your head than solid, critical reading.  If there is a particular style that you like, make a point of understanding why you like it.  Pay attention to the rhythm, the subjects, and anything else that you think really gets inside your own head and stays there.  There’s no right answer to this part except to constantly read as critically as you can.

Short and Punchy: Engage  the eyes before you engage the brain.  Bullet points, as I’ve done here, will scan easily if you can get away with them.  Longer sentences that touch the heart should be embedded deeper in the paragraph, after you’ve got your reader paying attention.  If you have to, think of it as a “pickup line” that you use to have a chance to really tell your story.  The reader has to want to care first – smile at them before you go into the story.

Active Verbs: Avoid sentences like “I am planning …” in favor of “I plan to …”.  A general guide is to scan your work afterward for “ing” endings, and if they are paired with a “be” verb – is, are, and the like – you should change it to a form that stresses action.  In particular, if you are writing for people who may not speak English as a first language, use the “subject-verb-object” form as much as you can.  An example is to use “I will write this guide tomorrow” rather than “Tomorrow, I will write this guide”.

Tense: Pay attention to whether you are in present, past, or future tense.  You can change from one paragraph to the other, but only if you are good – and you should never switch in mid-paragraph.  For example, it would be wrong to follow “I wrote this paragraph while watching TV.” with “It is a good paragraph,  no matter what people say”.  The last sentence should be in the past tense as well, such as “It turned out well no matter what people say”.

Acronyms and Jargon: If you want to use an acronym, introduce it first as text, such as a Three Letter Acronym (TLA).  Similarly, jargon that is not part of normal English should also be avoided unless you can explain it easily with a few words.

Edit in a Different Format: If you write it on a screen in a quiet room, print it out to edit in a noisy place like a coffee shop.  Change up your situation and mood and make sure it still works.  To be a good writer is to be a good editor, which is not easy.  Very few people can edit their own stuff without a lot of training because they know what they meant regardless of how good or bad it is.  Different media and different surroundings will scramble your brain just enough to make it a bit more obvious, but you’ll still have to work at it.

In general, the key is to pay attention to how you read and what works.  Once you get that down, the details usually fall into place.  Practice makes them a skill that comes easily.  More than anything else, a good writer is a good editor because they know how to pay attention to detail one way or the other.

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