Writing is a skill like any other: it can be learnt and developed. It seems to be generally agreed that the best way to learn is to write regularly, and then review what you’ve written for sense and style. In general, you should spend three times as long on editing and reviewing as on the first draft. Here are a few other points to consider:
Cut, cut and cut again – While you don’t want to remove every other word, it is a good rule of thumb to remember that everything that you include must have a purpose. Don’t waste your reader’s time with unnecessary ‘flannel’, or with linking words. Check that every sentence is necessary.
Review adverbs and adjectives – In business writing, adverbs and adjectives should generally be removed, as they seldom add clarity to anything. Yes, they’re interesting, but they’re not essential, and they can usually be replaced by a better word. If you’re writing a blog, however, you may want to include a few to make your writing sound more informal and chatty, but don’t overdo it. A light sprinkling is all you want, not one in every sentence.
Aim to keep your sentences short wherever possible – Research from the American Press Institute says that shorter sentences are more easily understood. When the average sentence length in a sample piece was no more than eight words, readers understood the whole piece. When upped to 14 words, they still understood 90%. At 43-word sentences, readers grasped no more than 10% of the meaning. As a general rule of thumb, sentences that spread over more than two lines of typing are too long, and should be split up.
Keep your sentence structure simple – This is particularly important when you or your audience do not speak the language as natives. Try to keep your sentences as simple as possible. The most simple sentence possible contains a subject, a verb and an object (for example, I went home). If you find yourself using subclauses, or explanatory sentences within a sentence like this one, consider rewriting to avoid.
Add some variety for interest – A whole article of short sentences is easy to understand, but not very interesting to read. Although you need to keep the sentence length under about two lines, using varied sentence lengths will hold your audience’s attention for longer. It is more interesting to read, and it also changes the pace and tension of your writing. While we’re on the subject, it’s also a good idea to vary the sentence and word structures in your writing.
Use simple language wherever possible – This doesn’t only mean avoid jargon, although that’s important. It also means using simpler words and structures: for example, ‘to’ not ‘in order to’, ‘with’ instead of ‘together with’, and ‘find out’ not ‘ascertain’. Aim for your writing to be understandable by a non-native speaker or a child of about ten to twelve.
Read your writing out loud to yourself – This may sound odd, but it will help you to identify any grammatical mistakes, typos, or parts that simply do not flow well. It will also help you to eliminate any overlong sentences, as these are particularly hard to read out loud.
Check that what you have written gets across your intended message – As you review what you have written, keep your intended message in mind. Ask yourself whether your words are essential to getting your meaning across, and if your readers will take away the right ‘lesson’. It is worth doing this with everything you write, from text messages, through emails to blogs.
Make sure that your writing is suitable for your intended audience – Audience matters. It is no good having a perfectly crafted piece of writing if your intended audience is put off by something in it. For example, if you are writing for an informed audience, you don’t need to explain every last detail. On the other hand, if you’re writing a training manual, you might want to include more information.
Don’t forget to check your spelling and grammar – Nothing is quite as likely to put off readers as poor spelling or grammar. Use a spellcheck and grammar check if you must, but don’t rely on them, as they are not altogether accurate. Instead, ask a colleague to look over your text and see if it makes sense.