Write Better — Recommendations from a Former Writing Tutor

Have you ever listened to someone explain your idea eloquently and concisely? You shared the same thoughts, but their version was persuasive or summoned strong emotions in the audience. Why can’t you do that, too?

Image for post
Image for post
You can write well, too!

Just as people judge a book by its cover and a website by its look, people judge ideas on grammar, organization, and other standards that have little to do with the ideas themselves. The good news is that — if you’re reading this — you already speak enough English to easily improve the presentation of your ideas with just a little work.

Not only can writing (and speaking) eloquently and concisely help draw people to your message, it suggests that the writer is intelligent and detail-oriented, and it can get your ideas money from Medium’s Partner Program! Don’t let your great ideas go to waste! Here are some quick tips to improve your writing.

Plan, Plan, Plan

The quickest way to speak and write garbage is to just start speaking or writing. Great speakers and writers take time to plan their language.

You don’t even have to plan as much as Sylvester
  1. Brainstorm. Write down bullet points of your ideas in any order. Write down everything you wish to discuss
  2. Organize these bullet points into a skeleton. Try to identify categories or themes and which ideas are details of others. Here you can also write out more than bullet points. If your sections are big, organize them, too!
  3. Using this organized skeleton, begin writing. You most likely organized the “body” in step 2, but you also need to start with an opening and end with a closing. It’s okay to write these in any order, but try to make it come naturally. Typically I write body-opening-closing or opening-body-closing.
Image for post
Image for post
My brainstorm on the left and my organization on he right

Scaffolding your ideas this way will help ideas flow out of your head more easily and also be easier for the audience to understand.

You’re Already an Expert

Yes, you do!

To unify the different varieties of English, standards have been made, such as the Modern Language Association or American Psychology Association’s recommendations for writing. While these recommendations have been criticized for being discriminatory, the professional world we live in expects this academic standard to be upheld. This is why nonacademic English is sometimes looked down upon.

Native Speakers

People often talk themselves out of correct grammar because they believe their grammar is poor. However, while native speakers do occasionally make mistakes, in general, our speech is always grammatical, according to generative linguistics. Because of this, best practice is to…

  1. Write using your instincts — do not overthink grammar
  2. If you have a feeling you might be using nonacademic English, search for the right answer. Grammar Girl has clear answers to almost all of my questions
  3. Remember these differences between your English and academic English. Common culprits are past-tense verbs that do not end in -ed (“saw,” “were”), past participles (phrases like “She had gone to work” or “It was shown…”), and choosing between “I” and “me.” (Please read this article.)

If you make a mistake that is also colloquial English, you look like a native speaker. If you make a mistake while trying to use proper grammar that is actually incorrect grammar, you were caught trying (and failing) to sound smart. I will always pick the former!

Still, it’s important to write differently from actual speech. People can re-read writing, so it can be more concise. Steer clear of informal spellings (‘gonna,’ ‘wanna’), and don’t overuse slang or exclamations (‘oh,’ ‘What?!’, ’No way!’).

Grammar time!

Non-Native Speakers

People who learn English as a second (or subsequent) language have advantages, too — they often only learn academic English. Use your knowledge of academic grammar boldly and have confidence in your writing! There is no shame in writing in simple English because it allows both native speakers and more non-native speakers to read the work.

Before you finish, decide if you want to show perfect English or an honest representation of your English. If proving your English abilities is part of the plan, that’s great! If not, ask a native speaker to help you edit. Many native speakers will focus on grammar, but ask them to focus on meaning. If people don’t understand or incorrectly understand, the grammar doesn’t matter.

Style

Now we’re writing! Unless you’re writing for academia, keep your personality! Even professionals want to feel that a human is on the other side of the words. Adding small, unconventional bits to your writing is a great way to show people who you are and make them more comfortable reading, listening, or — most importantly — accepting your ideas.

Another common mistake is trying to use academic words. Do use smart words when

  1. They add clarity or concision to your message, and
  2. You are sure what they mean and how to use them

Do not use big words when

  1. You are unsure what they mean, or
  2. You have a simpler word that works just as well (unless you have said that simpler word many times and want to avoid redundancy)
Your big words are never going to happen!

If people don’t understand your fancy words, they can’t understand your message.

Lastly, don’t overuse the words “I,” “me,” and “my.” Almost everything we say is just our own thoughts or opinions, so “I think” and similar phrases are unnecessary and can sound egotistical if overused. If you’re presenting an idea that isn’t your own, it is properly cited, correct? That’s what I thought!

Spelling and Punctuation

This one should be easy! Check anything you’re unsure of. Common problems include…

You’re vs Your
  1. Homophones (there, their, they’re)
  2. Multiple punctuation marks at once — put periods and commas inside of quotes and parentheses
  3. Commas… Which need their own section

Commas

Comma usage can be tricky. Please do a quick search if you are unsure. In general, use a comma anywhere it adds clarity. Here are some guidelines.

  1. Vocative commas — The person you are talking to should be separated from the phrase by commas. “I want to eat Mom” means you want to cannibalize your mother, and “I want to eat, Mom” is an explanation to your mother that you are hungry.
  2. Serial or Oxford Comma — This is the comma before the last item in a list. While it is optional, it adds clarity. “At the museum, I saw George Washington, the man who married a pinecone and the author of the book that became Mean Girls.” Without the serial comma, it’s unclear whether I am referencing one person — George Washington married a pinecone and wrote Mean Girls — or three different people. With a comma after “pinecone,” it would have to be three different people. Whatever you use, be consistent.
  3. Separating nonessential information —If we write “The dog that ate my underwear is outside,” we are specifying one dog out of many. “That” tells us “ate my underwear” is essential, or “restrictive,” in identifying that dog. However, if there were only one dog outside, or that one dog was clear from context, we would say “The dog, which ate my underwear, is outside.” Here, “ate my underwear” is “nonrestrictive,” so we can get rid of it, and “The dog is outside” makes perfect sense.
  4. Don’t separate essential information — sometimes people put in commas just to break up long phrases. “The dog that ate my underwear while I was at the park yesterday, is outside” is incorrect because the portions before and after the comma are not complete ideas on their own.
Image for post
Image for post
A serial comma would have let us know for certain that Obama and Castro are not getting married

That & Which

Academic English in the United States has clear distinctions between the uses of “that” and “which.” Just like bullet 3 in the comma section above, “that” is for restrictive clauses and “which” is for nonrestrictive clauses. This is another mistake that catches people trying and failing to sound smart.

I’ve seen news articles with headlines like “The Five African Countries Which Border the Mediterranean Are Having a Heat Wave.” In American English, this headline is saying there are only five countries in Africa — “which” is nonrestrictive, so you can remove its clause (the phrase following it) without changing the meaning, making it “The Five African Countries Are Having a Heat Wave.” We must say “that” instead of “which” to indicate that “Border the Mediterranean” is a specifier, not superfluous information.

Editing

Congratulations! You wrote the whole piece. Read it a few times to make sure it flows well and that there are no mistakes. Look for common mistakes and ones that you personally need to double check. Other corrections that might be easier to see during a full read are…

  1. Punctuation for rhetorical questions and “How to” phrases. “Why don’t we take a look?” needs a question mark, and “How to write better” cannot have a question mark
  2. Using strong transition words that help the flow of the writing
  3. Not using the same words too often

Now, get a friend or co-worker to read your writing! You should also read the whole work out loud to yourself. Even while reading silently, people subvocalize (or say the words in their heads), so writing that sounds awkward or difficult out loud will not sound better in silence.

I wish you the best in your writing. Let it be a grand presentation of your ideas, not a blocker!

The author worked for two years as a tutor in his college Writing Center and three years teaching English as a foreign language. As a student, he strictly followed APA and MLA guidelines.

Mission Accomplished

Written by

Full Stack Web Developer, former English as a foreign language teacher and volleyball coach. All views and opinions are my own.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store