One of the best ways to move up in the world is to improve your nonfiction writing skills.
Improving your nonfiction writing can help you whether you’re writing a memo to your boss, preparing a business proposal for potential investors, writing a blog post, asking for a grant, or even if you’re writing a love letter. Below you’ll find 54 tips to improve your nonfiction writing.
1. Read Great Writers. Almost every article you’ll ever read on how to improve your writing will begin with the following advice: to be a better writer, read great writers. Good writing is simply not possible without reading. Read for all of the following reasons:
- For inspiration.
- To grasp the art of language.
- To learn effective writing techniques.
- To appreciate the nuances of words.
2. Be a Critical Reader. In the point above I recommend that you read a lot. However, instead of reading passively, you should read critically. That is, when you’re reading, always be alert to what works, and what doesn’t.
3. Develop Your Own Voice. Developing your own voice will make your writing stand out. Also, finding and developing your own voice is the best way to gain a loyal base of followers. Your writing voice is made up of the following: your choice of words; the way in which you put your words together; a distinct way of looking at the world; and having your own opinions.
4. Learn a Word a Day. Having an ample vocabulary is one of the best ways to improve your writing. You can increase your vocabulary by learning a word-a-day. There are many ways to do this. One is to simply open the dictionary each morning and pick a word.
5. Create a Writing Habit. You become a better writer by writing. Make it a habit to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis. Establish a schedule for writing and stick to it. In the words of Ray Bradbury: “Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.”
6. Confidence is Key. In The Art of Nonfiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers, Ayn Rand recommends that you approach your writing with the mindset that, although not everything you write will automatically be perfect, you have the capacity to make your work what you want to make it. She adds that when you write you must leave all your self-doubts behind and have total self-esteem.
7. Write With Authority. No one is going to take you seriously unless you take yourself seriously. Stop second-guessing yourself and calling your own authority into question. The best way to do this is by removing statements that weaken your authority from your writing. Here are some examples:
- “I think”
- “I believe”
- “In my opinion”
Write with authority and you will be seen as an authority.
8. Be Well-Versed on Your Subject-Matter. One of the best ways to write with authority is to be well-versed on your subject matter. Ask yourself if you already know enough about the subject to be able to write about it intelligently. If you don’t, do more research until you do.
9. Know Why You’re Writing. Every time you sit down to write something, decide on your purpose, goal, or aim for writing. What are you hoping to achieve with this letter, essay, or blog post? Look at the following:
- Are you trying to persuade your readers to take a particular course of action?
- Is your purpose to entertain or amuse your readers?
- Is your purpose to inform or explain an idea?
Then, write in a way that will allow you to achieve your goal.
10. Choose Your Tone. Your choice of words and the way in which you construct your sentences will determine the tone of the piece you’re writing. Your tone and purpose are very much related: your tone will be defined by the reason for which you’re writing.
11. Decide On a Thesis. You want your writing to have a clear and concise main idea which is made clear to the reader early on.
12. Make One Point. Ask yourself the following: “What is the one point that I want to make?” Here’s some advice proffered by William Zinsser, author of “On Writing Well”:
“Every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five—just one.”
13. Write An Outline. Rand–who has already been mentioned in this post–also recommends that you always begin by writing an outline. An outline is a plan of mental action, and all human endeavors require a plan. She indicates that the basic pattern of an outline is to state what you’re going to demonstrate, demonstrate it, and then announce a conclusion.
14. Write From Your Subconscious. As a final tip from Rand, she recommends that you write directly from your subconscious, as the words come to you. The outline you prepared before you started writing will guide your subconscious. Therefore, there’s no need to use your conscious mind as you write; simply allow the words to flow automatically. Later, once the first draft is done, you can use your conscious mind to edit your writing.
15. Follow the IBC Strategy. Have an introduction, body, and conclusion.
16. Write a Sh*tty First Draft. Don’t be dismayed if your first draft looks nothing like the polished articles you see in magazines, or the blog posts written by your favorite bloggers. As Ernest Hemingway once said, “The first draft of everything is sh*t.”
17. Start With a Hook. Grab your reader by the throat in the introduction. If you catch their interest at the start, they’ll want to read on.
18. Keep Unity in Mind. Have a unity of pronoun (first person, second person, etc.), a unity of tense (past, present, or future), and unity of mood (casual, comedy, irony).
19. Choose the Right Word. In Keys to Great Writing, Stephen Wilbers recommends that you understand the power of a well-chosen word, and trust the word to do its work. The French have a phrase for it—le mot juste— the exact right word in the exact right position.
20. Delete Unnecessary Modifiers. As an example, instead of “free gift”, write “gift”. Also, avoid the following qualifiers and intensifiers: unique, quite, rather, pretty, really, very, kind of, actually, basically, practically, virtually.
As Mark Twain once said, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
21. Beware of Adverbs. Stephen King says the following in his book, On Writing: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs”. However, adverbs are not always evil. You can use an adverb when it changes the meaning of the verb.
Roy Peter Clark, author of Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, has a podcast in which he explains that, at their best, adverbs spice up verbs or adjectives. At their worst, they express meaning already contained in the verb.
Here’s an example:
- The accident totally severed the boy’s arm. “Severed” means “totally severed”, so the adverb is redundant. Take it out.
- If the boy’s arm had been partially severed, that would be a different case.
Now consider these two sentences:
- She smiled happily. “Smiled” contains the meaning of “happily”, so it’s a bad use of an adverb.
- She smiled sadly. In this case, “sadly” changes the meaning of the verb. This is a good use of an adverb.
22. Keep Sentences Short. In The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well, Paula LaRocque recommends that you vary sentence length to avoid tedium, but, in general, your sentences should be around 20 words long.
Here’s a quote from Zinsser on this topic: “There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.”
23. Be Clear and Concise. If it’s possible to cut a word out, do so.
24. Don’t Use Big Words. When you feel the urge to use long or obscure words, remember that one hallmark of great intellect is the ability to make the complex easy to understand. Also, keep in the mind that the front page of The Wall Street Journal and all of USA Today are written for the eighth grade reading level.
Keep the following in mind:
“Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.” — Strunk and White
“Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.” — Strunk and White
25. Be Yourself. Zinsser points out that readers want the person who is talking to them to sound genuine. Therefore, a fundamental rule is to be yourself.
26. Become a Word Collector. Another tip Zinsser provides is the following: “develop a respect for words and a curiosity about their shades of meaning that is almost obsessive.”
27. Make Your Writing Flow. Your writing should flow well: each paragraph should develop logically from the previous one. In addition, each paragraph should be related to the main idea of the essay (or whatever it is that you’re writing).
28. Write Good Paragraphs. Paragraphs are the foundation of anything you write. A paragraph is a group of sentences organized around a central topic. Here are some basic rules when writing paragraphs:
- Focus on one idea per paragraph.
- Each paragraph should have a topic sentence which expresses the paragraph’s single, supporting idea.
- The paragraph’s supporting sentences provide details, examples, and instructions.
- There should be clear transitions from one paragraph to the next.
29. “Who” or “Whom”. Know When to Use “Who” or “Whom”. Brandon Royal offers this handy guideline in The Little Red Writing Book for the perennial question of whether to use “who” or “whom”: if he, she, or they can be substituted for the pronoun in context, the correct form is who. If him, her, or them can be substituted, the correct form is whom.
- Example: “I want to know [who/whom] did this.” In this case, “He did this,” clearly sounds better than “Him did this”—so the answer is “I want to know who did this.”
- Example: “[Who/whom] should I ask about this?” You would “ask him,” not “ask he”—so the answer is “Whom should I ask about this?”
30. I and Me. Learn when to write “You and I”, and when to write “You and me”. There’s an easy way to do this: drop the word you then try the sentence with I and me and see which one sounds right. For example:
- You and (I/me) should join a Zumba class.
- I should join a Zumba class.
- Me should join a Zumba class.
Obviously, in the example above you should write, “You and I should join a Zumba class.”
Here’s another example:
- He’ll make you and (I/me) do it.
- He’ll make me do it.
- He’ll make I do it.
In this second example you should write, “He’ll make you and me do it.”
31. Use Active Verbs. Claire Kehrwald Cook admonishes her readers to pay attention to the verbs that they use, and when they find a weak one, to substitute it for something more vigorous.
32. Be Careful With the Passive Voice. The passive voice forces the reader to search for the intended meaning. In an active sentence, the subject is doing the action. Replace passive sentences with active ones and watch the real subject emerge from the shadows. Here’s an example:
- Passive: In summer, many fresh vegetables are offered by the open-air farmers market.
- Active: In summer, the open-air farmers market offers many fresh vegetables.
You can read more about the active and the passive voice in this article by “Grammar Girl”: Active Voice v. Passive Voice.
33. It’s What You Say, and How You Say It. Style is no substitute for substance. At the same time, substance buried in an unreadable presentation isn’t worth much either. When you have a diamond in the rough, polish it with the right editing.
34. Aim for the Right-Branching Sentence. Begin sentences with subjects and verbs, make your meaning early, and let your weaker elements branch to the right. Here’s an example from a New York Times article which Roy Peter Clark uses in his book “Writing Tools”:
“Rebels seized control of Cap-Haitien, Haiti’s second-largest city, on Sunday, meeting little resistance as hundreds of residents cheered, burned the police station, plundered food from port warehouses and looted the airport, which was quickly closed.”
The sentence is 37 words long, but the meaning is captured in the first three words: Rebels seized control.
35. Mix Things Up. Once in a while, for dramatic variation, write a sentence with subject and verb near the end.
36. Avoid Run-On Sentences. A run-on sentence joins at least two independent clauses–a group of words that contain a subject and a verb which could be a sentence by itself– without a conjunction or adequate punctuation.
For example: “These are my favorite jeans I wear them whenever I can.” You could rewrite this as two separate sentences, use a semicolon to separate the two independent clauses, or use a conjunction. (These are my favorite jeans; I wear them whenever I can.)
37. Beware of the Comma Splice. A comma splice is a type of run-on sentence. It’s when you use a comma to separate two independent clauses. Here’s an example: “It’s sunny out, wear a hat.” Again, the way to fix it is to use two sentences, use a semicolon, or use a conjunction. (It’s sunny out, so wear a hat.)
38. Revise Dangling Modifiers. A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a noun that does not appear in the sentence, or a noun that is positioned unclearly.
Here are two examples published in the Guardian:
- Hopping briskly through the vegetable garden, John saw a toad. (John was hopping through the vegetable garden?)
- Gently warmed in the oven and smothered in cream cheese, my friends loved the bagels. (Were the friends warmed in the oven and smothered in cream cheese?)
39. Avoid Redundancy. Don’t say the same thing twice. Here are some common examples:
- Unknown stranger
- Absolutely essential
- Completely unanimous
Writers often become redundant in an effort to be emphatic. However, you should only use the words that are necessary to convey your meaning.
40. Check Your Use of Capitals. Learn when and how to use capitals correctly. Here’s a handout which reviews the basic rules when it comes to capitalizing: A Little Help With Capitals.
41. Use Proper Punctuation. When we speak we can pause, stop, or change our tone of voice. When we write we have to rely on punctuation to clarify what we mean. Four of the most misunderstood punctuation marks are the following: semicolon; colon; dash; and comma.
42. Learn Apostrophe Rules. Use apostrophes correctly. There are three occassions in which the apostrophe is used:
- To indicate the possessive.
- To indicate missing letters.
- Sometimes to indicate the structure of unusual words.
43. Avoid Nominalizations. Use verbs when possible instead of the noun forms of verbs, known as “nominalizations.”
- An unclear use of nominalization: “The implementation of the plan was successful.”
- Clearer sentence: “The plan was implemented successfully.”
44. Don’t End a Sentence With a Preposition. Jack Lynch explains in his “Guide to Grammar and Style” that there’s a substantial body of opinion against end-of-sentence prepositions (such as: to, with, from, at, and in).
- No: “The topics we want to write on.”
- Yes: “The topics on which we want to write.”
However, don’t let this rule make your writing clumsy or obscure; if a sentence is more graceful with a final preposition, so be it. (Source)
45. Be Careful With Homonyms. Homonyms are words that sound alike. Here are some examples:
- Your and you’re
- Whose and who’s
- Its and it’s
- Compliment and complement
- Brake and break
- They’re, there, and their
46. Among or Amongst. Should you use among or amongst? Both are correct and mean the same thing, but among is more common.
47. Learn to Manage Your Time. At the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism–which gathers hundreds of storytellers to Harvard each fall–Morgan Entrekin, CEO of Grove/Atlantic Press, was asked whether talent or hard work counted more among authors. He answered that talent matters, but the writers who can manage their time and energy well show the best results in the long run. (A Writer’s Coach: The Complete Guide to Writing Strategies That Work)
48. Follow George Orwell’s Advice. When writing, ask yourself George Orwell’s six questions:
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
- Could I put it more shortly?
- Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
49. Create a Reference Library. When you’re writing and there’s something that you’re not sure about, look it up. For convenience, collect the best grammar references. You can start with these books:
- The Elements of Style
- The Chicago Manual of Style
- Roget’s Thesaurus
- On Writing Well
- The New Oxford American Dictionary
50. Think On Paper. Don’t wait for an idea to be fully formed in your head before you begin writing: think on paper. Howard and Baton, the authors of “Thinking on Paper”, indicate that writing is “the father to thought itself. . . We do not so much send our thought in pursuit of words as use words to pursue our thoughts.”
51. Avoid Clichés. Avoid clichés like the plague. (See what I did there?) If you’re going to use a cliché, try to give it an unexpected twist: “Never go to bed angry . . . stay up and plot your revenge.”
Thomas Pinney, author of “A Short Handbook and Style Sheet”, has the following to say about clichés:
“[Clichés] offer prefabricated phrasing that may be used without effort on your part. They are thus used at the expense of both individuality and precision, since you can’t say just what you mean in the mechanical response of a cliché.”
52. Remove Unnecessary Euphemisms. A euphemism is an indirect way to say something. As an illustration, a “depressed socioeconomic area” is a “slum.” As a second example, “in the family way” is “pregnant”.
53. Never Forget to Edit. Here are some editing tips:
- When you’re done writing, put it aside. Go do something else. Then come back and read it, pretending that you’ve never read it before.
- Check for grammar and spelling mistakes.
- Read your writing out loud. This will allow you to hear problems that you aren’t able to see. Also, listen to how your words sound – rhythm and alliteration are important.
54. Create an Editing Checklist. Are there certain words that you’re constantly having trouble with? For example, you may confuse advice and advise, or affect and effect. Make a list of your problem areas–we all have them–and make sure that you always double check for these in your writing.
As I wrote in my post “50 Characteristics of An Educated Person“, an educated person has the ability to communicate thoughts and ideas in writing, clearly and concisely. Achieve this objective by starting with the 54 tip above.
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