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Ten Ways to Improve Your Nonfiction Writing
You wouldn’t be reading this post unless you believed in the importance of teaching and learning. It follows that you understand the value of written communication. You may even have tried composing a blog, a scholarly report, an op-ed, or a letter to the editor. If so, you’ve discovered that excellent writing requires diligence, persistence, and skill.
Would you like to improve your writing? If so, examining the “hints” that follow can help you express yourself more clearly and avoid many common mistakes. (By the way, these principles don’t necessarily apply to text messages and emails to friends, where informality and emoticons serve the purpose quite nicely; the rules apply in direct proportion to the formality of the document, taking into account the context in which it will be read and the nature of the audience.)
Hint #1: Outline your thoughts first, in logical order, then follow the outline while you write, separating each concept into a new section or paragraph. Ideally, your writing should resemble an elegant prix fixe dinner in which each course follows its predecessor seamlessly, skillfully, and logically. Organize your paragraphs carefully. Start with a topic sentence, then elaborate on the concept with examples and clarifications. When you move on to another concept, begin another paragraph.
Hint #2: Choose a “voice” and use it consistently throughout your document. Don’t alternate between first, second, and third person. Switching back and forth will annoy careful readers beyond your wildest imagination. Similarly, pick a tense and use it consistently; don’t alternate between past, present, and future unless the content demands it.
Hint #3: Begin with a “hook” to capture the reader and conclude with a summary
or restatement of the principal “lesson” in the document. This post attempts to exemplify this hint.
Hint #4: Utilize strong, robust verbs whenever possible; avoid the passive, weak
“to be” (is, was, would be, etc.). Consulting a thesaurus will help you avoid littering your work with variations of the verb “to be” and will result in a far more interesting, conceptually precise document.
Hint #5: Use commas to separate the independent clauses in a sentence connected with a conjunction (like “and” or “but”) and on both sides of a parenthetical expression that appears in the middle of a sentence. In regard to the latter point, you wouldn’t use a parenthesis at the beginning of a nonessential phrase and not “close it out” with an ending parenthesis; the same principle applies to commas.
For clarity, the parenthetical expression in the example below is printed in red. (Example: “My mentor, who was a professor of English at a well-known university, always arrived in class promptly, and he proceeded to lecture for the entire hour without notes.” Alternatively, you could delete the subject in the second clause, leaving the compound verb “arrived” and “proceeded,” in which case you should also remove the comma before the word “and,” as follows: “My mentor, who was a professor of English at a well-known university, always arrived in class promptly and proceeded to lecture for the entire hour without notes.”)
Hint #6: Avoid repeating the same word frequently. Use a thesaurus, like “dictionary dot com.” (Example: in the last two sentences of Hint #1, note that “start” and “begin” mean essentially the same thing. Two different words were used deliberately to avoid unnecessary repetition.)
Hint #7: Don’t switch between singular and plural in the same sentence. While this may sound elementary, it’s easier said than done. “Collective nouns” cause many of the problems because they “sound” plural but are actually singular. Thus, say: “MOTAL’s board of directors held its monthly meeting last Thursday night,” not “MOTAL’s board of directors held their monthly meeting last Thursday night.”
Hint #8: Use “who” when referring to people. Otherwise, use “that” or “which.” Two examples of correct usage follow.
1) XYZ Corporation, which recently adopted a minimum wage of $15 an hour for all its workers, consistently gets high marks on employee surveys. (Note: organizations aren’t people.)
2) The Chief Financial Officer of XYZ Corporation, who just announced her retirement, has worked for the organization more than thirty years.
Hint #9: Use a consistent style for each element in a bulleted or numbered list. In other words, all elements in the list should be either complete sentences or sentence fragments. All sentence fragments (if that’s what you choose) should utilize the same grammatical structure (e.g. if the first one begins with a verb, then they should all begin with a verb—like this list of hints).
Hint #10: Edit, edit, and edit some more. Let your work sit undisturbed for at least 24 hours, then read it again critically. If you’re like most writers, you’ll find that most first drafts can be improved dramatically. Also, remember that you’re not the best critic of your own work; writers tend to fall in love with their own words and often fail to identify potential improvements. For important documents, find a friend or an experienced editor to assist.
Obviously, this list of hints isn’t comprehensive. (You see, it’s okay to use a form of the verb “to be” occasionally!) Good writing requires far more extensive knowledge of the craft than one blog post can contain. But now, at least, you know how to avoid the vast majority of the types of errors nonfiction writers frequently make, and if you force yourself to implement these principles consistently, you’ll be well on your way toward the desired result: a carefully crafted essay that leaves the reader with actionable information delivered clearly, concisely, and elegantly—just like a prix fixe dinner with a delectable dessert.
Submitted by Ronald Wolff, PhD.
Wolff retired nine years ago after serving sixteen years as CEO of a large nonprofit organization. During his tenure, he wrote grant proposals that collectively secured millions of dollars in funding. Eight of his short stories have been published in literary magazines, and his “letters to the editor” have appeared in several newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. For consulting services, contact him at RPWinSOCAL@aol.com.
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