Basic Writing Skills
1. Blank Page Syndrome
Every writer has experienced the frustration of sitting in front of a screen with an open blank document and the cursor flashing at you, like it’s mocking you.
It’s often hard to get started because you’re worried about making mistakes. Try a timed session where you push yourself to continue writing for 5 minutes without stopping – and fix any mistakes later.
The average reading ability of adults is around the upper primary school English level. So, it just doesn’t make sense to fill your writing with flowery or unusual vocabulary.
If people can’t understand what you’re writing, you’re wasting your time – and theirs. Remember the adage, KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid when you’re writing – and avoid unnecessary complexity.
To be clear with the point you want to make, it’s important to stay on topic. The strength of your appeal dissipates when you go off on a tangent.
Write an outline before you start. Begin with your main idea and add supporting details. Then, as you’re writing, regularly refer to this outline so that you don’t get side tracked.
Sprawling or rambling sentences are confusing because it makes it harder for the reader to understand the point you’re trying to make.
If you overwhelm your audience by making them try to sift through unnecessary wordage, you’ll lose them. Get to the point by avoiding filler and redundant vocabulary and reducing phrases to words when possible.
Flow occurs when your readers can move easily from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph. If they hesitate for any reason – boredom, confusion, disbelief – the flow is interrupted.
When constructing sentences and paragraphs, you will reduce the possibility of hesitation if there are logical connections between ideas. The reader needs to see elements of meaning being continued.
Some modern writers argue that you should throw away the grammar book – that writing with perfect grammar is a stilted, traditional style which is now obsolete.
This is an overreaction – there are many grammar rules that should never be broken. Writing is fundamentally about the need to put words in a certain order to allow comprehension to occur.
7. Vocabulary Choice
English often has multiple words for the same idea. So how is it possible to choose the most suitable vocabulary?
While you may need to look at things like age and gender, a key consideration that is often overlooked is nuance.
For example, the noun ‘scheme’ has a negative connotation, whereas ‘plan’ has a neutral one – yet essentially, they’re interchangeable.
There are many different genres of writing, all with varying scope and requirements. You need to adapt your content and style depending on the form of writing you’re undertaking.
If you need to write in a genre you’ve never written in before, do an online search. Find acknowledged experts, examine their style, and then craft your writing accordingly.
9. Active Voice
In the active sentence below, the subject (I) acts. In the passive sentence, the subject (The apple) is acted upon.
Active: I ate the apple.
Passive: The apple was eaten by me.
It’s better to concentrate on using the active voice in writing. Active sentences have more energy and directness. But don’t discard the passive voice altogether.
10. Sentence Length
To keep your reader interested, you need to vary the length of your sentences (short or longer, not long). Having all short sentences sounds choppy and childish. Having all longer sentences makes your writing difficult to digest.
But don’t just make arbitrary decisions. Use longer sentences to present details or a description. Use short sentences to keep your reader focused.
11. Discourse Markers
Discourse markers are the words you use to link ideas together to form complex or compound sentences. Good writers need to be very familiar with the more than 20 different categories of discourse markers and the vocabulary in each category.
Example category: cause and result
Example discourse marker: so
I studied hard. I passed the test > I studied hard, so I passed the test.
12. Emotive Words
The purpose of writing is to get your reader to respond in the way that you want them to. If you’re looking for an emotional reaction to your writing, there are certain words you can use to make that happen.
A short emotive word list: confidential, banned, confessions, proven, revolutionary, deadline, free, bargain, guaranteed, authentic.
13. Providing Evidence
Writing will often begin with an assertion – you’re making a claim that is an opinion rather than a fact. However, just because you’re saying something doesn’t mean people will automatically believe you.
To make a logical argument, you need to provide evidence to support your assertion.
Evidence can be: reasons, examples, expert opinion, a reliable news source, statistics.
14. Be Error Free
There’s an old saying, ‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression’.
Would you revisit a store if the products were on the wrong shelves? Would you go back to a hotel if the sheets in your room weren’t washed? The answer is obvious!
Make a good first impression by checking your writing carefully to ensure it’s mistake-free. Go through your piece at least twice.
15. Read It Out Loud
Before you sign off on your final draft, try reading it out loud. It’s amazing how different your writing can appear when you’re hearing it as well as reading it.
You’ll notice things that don’t work – an ineffective argument, awkward phrasing, inappropriate word choices. You can even try reading to a friend to get a second opinion.