The Basics of Writing Well – Part I

When reading the works of our favorite writers it seems their writing reads simply, clearly and smoothly, with elegant sentence structure and word choice that jumps to life out of the paper almost magically. Many regard writing as an innate gift possessed by a select few. On the contrary, writing like any skill can be acquired with hard work, patience, and persistence.

Whether you are writing your college application essay, a timed essay for the SAT test / ACT test, or just for fun, here are some basic tips to establish good habits that will help you write well.

Outline your ideas.

Most students write in a linear progression, one word or one thought after another. We often use a linear outline to help organize our thoughts, but the reality is that we do not always think that way. Creative ideas creep into our minds seemingly spontaneously, and may often jump from topic to topic.

To capture the true flow of the creative mind, an alternative to the linear outline is the graphical outline, allowing thoughts to be written out in the form of simple diagrams. Some call this outline method idea clustering or mind mapping.

You can write your ideas in random order when they come to you, without worrying about how they fit together. After these ideas are established, then process these creative thoughts and arrange them into a linear progression of ideas that you can elaborate on.

Exciting opener.

Your opening paragraph needs to grab the reader’s attention. You should pique the reader’s interest with an opener that details the problem or issue, arouses curiosity, and clearly states a thesis. Getting right to the point as clearly as possible will encourage the reader to continue reading.

Active voice.

Active verbs are stronger than passive verbs. You have probably heard this before but may not know why. One reason is that most people talk in the active voice, so your writing will sound more familiar and conversational if you also use the active voice. For example, “Coby spilled the drink,” vs. “the drink was spilled by Coby.” Which is better? (The former) Another reason to write with active verbs is that using the active voice reduces the number of words you use. Simple writing is the best writing.

Use strong verbs.

Using robust verbs that describe action will make your writing more interesting. For example, you may use “deny” instead of “don’t agree with,” or use “ignore” instead of “do not consider.” These small differences will give more zest and directness to your prose.

Don’t forget a title!

The easiest way to gain the reader’s attention is to grab it right from the start with a good title. At the very least, the title should let the reader know what the subject is about. Think about how you browse in the bookstore or library. Often you probably pick up books that have titles that catch your eye and sound interesting. Your title should be an attention-grabber that lets the reader know that your material is of interest. It can also arouse curiosity or be clever, but make sure it points directly to the subject of your piece.  There are plenty of examples of titles that, while clever, misdirect the reader entirely. Wait until you are finished writing to choose a title. That way, once you have written everything, your title can be the final touch that brings it all together.

In the next post we’ll introduce additional specific techniques of how to write well including how to improve vocabulary and how to write for different audiences.