Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Writing effective English: my top tips

After the excitement of being nominated for a writing blog award by eCollege Finder last week, I have been giving some thought to what advice I could offer to students who want to improve their writing skills. 

As usual, this has ended up as a much longer post than I intended (ramble?  moi?) but for those who can’t be bothered to read to the end (and hey, we’re aiming at students, so might as well be realistic), here are my top tips for writing effective English:

1.  Be clear about WHAT you’re writing.
2.  Check the guidelines before you start.
3.  Have a clear structure in mind.
4.  Start specific.
5.  Know how to deal with block: bird by bird.
6.  Draft.
7.  Keep language simple and natural.
8.  Perfect your presentation and your punctuation: learn to use a full stop and an apostrophe!

As it happens, all of these tips apply equally to other kinds of writing, and I could just as well have written them with romance writers, rather than students, in mind.  Whatever you're writing, I hope you'll find some of the advice below useful - although you might want to bear in mind my final tip, which is to do as I say, and not as I do!


Your first step in effective writing is to understand exactly what it is you want to do.  Do you need to write an essay or a PhD thesis?  A dissertation or a research proposal?  Are you emailing a lecturer, or contacting a friend?

If you need to present a formal piece of work, make sure you understand precisely what it is you are required to produce. Are you answering a question, or exploring an argument?  Is it enough to simply write up your research, or do you need to form it into a coherent argument?  


Aspiring authors get sick of being told to check the guidelines, but it’s good advice, and you will save yourself a lot of time if you know what you’re doing.  If you’re asked to write a 2,000 word essay, for instance, there’s no point in writing 5,000 words, just as there’s no point in submitting a 100,000 word gritty thriller to Mills & Boon.   If you’re told to include footnotes, put them in - and in the correct format!


OK, you know what you need to do.  Time to get typing, right?  Wrong!  I strongly suggest that you give some thought to your outline structure before you write a word.  True, some writers prefer to sit down and see where the words take them, but it’s all too easy to get lost that way, and  if you’re at all unsure about your writing ability, you’ll find it much easier to have a framework to hang your words on right from the start. At the very least you’ll need a beginning, a middle and an end, an introduction, an argument and a conclusion, or whatever labels you want to put on the time-honoured three part structure.  I’d then jot down the main points I wanted to include in each section, but not everyone has my fetish about organising life into lists, I know.  Still, I reckon it can only be helpful.

Now you’re ready to start writing?  Hold on, not quite yet ... The temptation is to plunge in, but it’s worth giving your introduction a bit of thought.  A good friend of mine is an English lecturer and I asked him the other day about the advice he gives to students struggling with essays.  Too often, he said, essays begin in a rambling way.  It’s much more effective to start with the specific – a quotation from a text, say, or a moment in time – and build your argument out from that.   I’ve never written an essay for the a science subject, for instance, but I don’t see why the same shouldn’t be true for other disciplines too.  Start specific.

This is good advice for creative writing too.  A rambling beginning choc-a-bloc with backstory is a common mistake in manuscripts I see.  It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, cut straight to the chase.  Readers don’t want to be bored by the set up.  They want to be sucked straight into what’s important.  In a romance, that’s when the hero and heroine meet, or at a point of change or crisis in their relationship.  In an essay, find some nugget of information or a quotation or something that encapsulates the argument you’re going to make.

DEALING WITH BLOCK (aaarrrggghh)

Right, so you’ve got the perfect  quotation to start.  You’ve got an outline.   You’re full of ideas.  You’re ready to go.   And yet, if you’re anything like me, this is the very point when the words refuse to come.  It all seems too daunting.  A 2000 word essay, a 90,000 word thesis, a 150,000 word novel … however short or long it is, the prospect of ordering all your material, presenting your argument or telling the story you have to tell can be overwhelming.  Your fingers freeze on the keyboard, your heart pounds in panic … I know, I’ve been there, more times than I can tell!

The best advice I ever read about dealing with this awful feeling of paralysis comes from Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott. A wonderful writer, Lamott tells the story from her childhood about her brother, who at the end of the holidays was paralysed with fear at the size of the project about birds that he was supposed to have been doing over the previous weeks.  On the last night, he sat despairingly at the table, surrounded by books about birds and with no idea where to start.  Their father sat down beside him and put an arm around his shoulders.  ‘Take it bird by bird, buddy,’ he said.  ‘Bird by bird.’ 

I may not have quoted it exactly, but I love this story.  It’s a lesson for life as well as writing, I think.  When it all seems too much, don’t think about how much you have to do.  Just think about writing the first line, or the first paragraph.  Aim to do your introduction, or two pages.  Don’t think beyond that. As one of the great listmakers of the universe, I give myself a timetable, with targets of a certain number of words or pages to do a day, but you don’t need to go to those lengths. Do a little at a time - bird by bird, in fact – and the essay/thesis/novel will get written. 


I’m also a big fan of drafts.  The thought of turning out perfect prose at the first attempt is too intimidating, so I start with a rough, rubbishy draft, and then I expand it to make a full draft, and as a last step, I expand again and polish.  I’m terrified by the blank page and always find it easier to work from something, however crappy (and believe me, it can be very crappy at this stage, as I am discovering, going back to a rough draft after the Christmas break!)

Oh dear, this seems to be turning into a very long post.  Pithy is something I just can’t do.  But having started, as they say, I’m going to finish, and besides, it’s not often I get the encouragement to pontificate.  So just two more points.


Writing is about communication.  It’s about getting what’s inside your head into someone else’s head, and it’s a powerful tool.  Often people are afraid of writing, especially in a formal context like academic essays and dissertations, and they make their language too complicated. Clear is not the same as casual.  Cut any word that doesn’t come naturally to you and replace it with one that does.  This applies as much to fiction writers as to everyone else.  Avoid elaborate constructions or the passive voice or jargon.  They’re all horrible to read.  If you’re not confident about your writing, start by simply writing down what you would say out loud. 

For an academic essay, of course, you’ll need to expand contractions (“don’t” becomes “do not”, “he’ll” becomes “he will” etc.) but you can do that at the polishing stage.  For your first draft, just write it as you would say it, and the moment you find yourself trying to impress with a clever word, stop, and stick with the one you thought of in the first place!  A final draft will allow you to polish, check for missing words and misplaced commas and apostrophes (see below) and run a spell check.  Sloppy presentation won’t affect the meaning of what you have written, but it will make it less effective, as it will be so much harder to read.  And why irritate your tutor/editor unnecessarily?


Last, but absolutely not least, learn how to punctuate correctly.  In particularly, make sure you know how to use a full stop!  Too often people lose themselves in the middle of a sentence and shove in a random comma.  This is one of my pet hates, so please, please, don’t do it.  Read your sentence out loud.  If you run out of breath, it’s too long and complicated.  If in doubt, keep it short and sweet, stop and start a new sentence. 

And while I’m at it, learn how to use an apostrophe too.  It isn’t difficult!   The easiest way to remember is to think that the apostrophe stands for something that’s missing – which I could have written as ‘that is missing’ instead, but that isn’t (is not) in keeping with the informal style of this blog!  There are various websites telling you how to use an apostrophe if you’re not sure, or if you want to brush up your punctuation (and you should if you want to write effectively!) Jenny Haddon has written a clear and very useful book just for you called Getting the Pointand I thoroughly recommend that you, er, get it.  


  1. Very informative post. Thank you. :o)

  2. Very helpful for any kind of writing - thanks. The 'bird by bird' story really strikes a chord :)

  3. Thanks to you both. Sorry it's taken me so long to respond, but I've been away, and engaged in a battle with FB which refused to post the link for a while! I love the 'bird by bird' story too, Tora - and of course, it's much better the way she tells it! A lesson for life as well as writing, I think!

  4. Wow....I love this post. You did a fantastic job.

    I am stopping by from the Top Writing Blog competition.

    Just wanted to say hello. This is a great way to find new blogs and visit ones you haven't visited in a while. :)

    Elizabeth - Silver's Reviews