By Justin Anderson, Content Editor at GoodPractice
As a professional writer and editor, the idea that anybody can write about something if they know the subject matter is something of a bugbear. By the same logic, anyone who knows what a dog looks like can draw one!
I’ve seen some shockingly bad pieces of writing put out by major organisations. One film preview, by a movie channel which shall remain nameless, was so appallingly bad that I assumed it must have been written by a six year old who’d never seen the film – or the inside of an English classroom!
Writing well is a skill, but it is one you can develop with practice. Over fifteen years of doing it for a living, I’ve picked up a lot of advice and experience. So whether you’re a linguistic legend or an appalling apostrophobe, here are my tips to help you write like a pro.
The best thing to do if you want to improve your writing is read. Whether in a high-quality newspaper, book, magazine or website, reading well-crafted, professional writing will improve your own skills. It will increase your vocabulary and help you see how information can be conveyed in an efficient but engaging way. Pay attention to things like word choice, sentence structure and storytelling.
The more good writing you read, the more good writing you’ll write.
The main purpose of writing is to convey thoughts from your brain to your reader’s. The easier it is to read, the more it gets out of the way of your message. If a reader is constantly backtracking to re-read sections, you’re pulling them away from your ideas to look at your words.
Good writing should flow like water, easily taking the reader on a journey through your story. In fact, it should almost sing, as the varying emphases beat out a rhythm.
This is easier to achieve than you might imagine. Get in the habit of reading your writing out loud. It’s much easier to hear the beat of the sentences when you speak them. If you stumble over anything, change it. If a sentence doesn’t work, approach it from a different direction. For example:
“Bill, carrying two drinks, tripped over Jill’s foot, spilling the drinks in the process.”
“When Bill tripped over Jill’s foot, he spilled the two drinks he was carrying.”
“Jill accidentally tripped Bill, who spilled his two drinks.”
Play around with options until you find the one that flows best within your narrative.
Once you’ve done this for a while, you’ll be able to ‘read out loud’ inside your head. When you can do that, you’ll naturally start self-editing for rhythm and flow.
Don’t use unnecessarily long or complicated words in an attempt to sound more intelligent, sophisticated or formal. There are two very good reasons for this:
Also, don’t use more words than you need. If a sentence feels too long, take out one word at a time until it stops making sense. Then put back the last word you took out.
One of the easiest ways to improve your writing is to watch out for overused words. Words which are overused can be distracting from the other words around them, so choose your words carefully. Thesaurus.com is your friend.
In particular, look out for too many ‘ands’ in a sentence. If your sentence runs on and on and you have to think about where it started and by the end you’re a bit lost and confused … break it up into two or three sentences instead.
It might be helpful to make a list of words you tend to overuse yourself and keep it to hand. ‘That’ and ‘so’ are common examples, but most people have their own, often specific to their job. Having a list of them nearby helps make you aware when you use them.
You might know what you mean, but that doesn’t mean your reader does. If Liz pushes her glasses up her nose, is that going to help her see better or require a trip to the hospital? Make sure there’s not another way to interpret what you’re trying to say. If in doubt, ask someone else to read it for you and check that your intentions are clear.
Past, present or future – pick one and stick to it. Mixing up tenses can be very confusing. You started in the past tense then you’ll go into the future and now you’re lost. Never change tense within a sentence and, generally, stick to the same tense throughout a piece, unless there’s a good reason not to.
As a general rule, try to use an active voice rather than a passive one. An active voice involves the first subject in the sentence doing something, while a passive voice involves them having something done to them. For example, “Joan called Amy” is better than “Amy was called by Joan”. “The report was undermined by a lack of statistics” is passive, while “more statistics would have improved the report” is active. Active voices are generally considered to be more engaging and they may also have the benefit of making you seem more assertive yourself.
Twitter user Rebecca Johnson (@johnsonr) introduced an excellent way of testing whether you have a passive or active voice. If you can insert the phrase “by zombies” after the verb in your sentence and it still makes sense, you have a passive voice.
In conversation, your natural pauses, emphases and tone of voice help make your meaning clear. All of that is lost when you’re communicating in writing. The role of punctuation is to replace those missing subtleties and ensure your audience takes the correct meaning from your words.
A comma is an extremely useful tool in that regard. Think of it as a pause, which is there to identify to your reader that the information before the comma is not directly linked to the information after it. Take the following two sentences as an example:
“We should run over, David.”
“We should run over David.”
The first is clearly a suggestion to David. The second is rather more sinister.
The other place where a comma is essential is to clearly separate an additional comment in the middle of a sentence. For example:
“Cooking, my favourite stress buster, is a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.”
“Cooking my favourite stress buster is a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.”
The first adds information that cooking is the writer’s favourite stress buster; the second makes you hope their favourite stress buster isn’t the family pet.
The apostrophe is arguably the most troublesome punctuation mark. If trying to remember when to use one or not sends you into paroxysms of fear, stay calm – there are five easy rules to remember.
For more advice on correct punctuation, and a very funny read, try Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss.
There are many words that sound alike, but are spelled differently. The most commonly misused include:
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride (1987) 
There are a number of words that have come to be used wrongly in everyday conversation. While usually understood when used incorrectly, you’ll always make a better impression if you get them right. For example:
Whatever your writing ability, the best way to improve it is the same as with any other skill: practice; practice; practice. If you have a friend or colleague whose writing ability you admire, consider asking them for feedback on pieces before you send them on. The more experience you accumulate, the better your writing will become
As a Content Editor at GoodPractice I get involved in creating all of the various learning and performance solutions we offer. In over 15 years of writing and editing for a living, I’ve done everything from restaurant, theatre and comedy reviews to training manuals and magazines, including four years as the writer, editor and photographer for an Edinburgh guidebook. Outside of GoodPractice, my first novel, Carpet Diem, is due to be published shortly.
 The Princess Bride quotes at: www.imdb.com.