Whenever I have to edit any form of writing; I start by looking for the obvious flaws that can weaken a text.
I’m not talking here about spelling errors and typos, because they can wait until later.
A first draft is a creative process that is all about getting the story out. Just start writing.
A writer shouldn’t worry too much about form and grammar at this stage.
You can learn how to become a better writer by noting your weaknesses
But when it comes time for a second draft, good writers know that they can improve by searching for their frequent mistakes.
Perhaps I shouldn’t say mistakes. It is more a case of writing tics that occur during the creative writing process.
Every writer has a few bad habits. But knowing what they are is part of learning how to write well.
Repetitive and overused words tend to stand out when it comes time to read the first draft. Making changes with better word choices is the first step in improving your writing.
The second draft is also the time to check that the story is coherent and in a logical order.
But it is also the stage when you can make significant improvements to any piece of content. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short story, a blog post, an article or a novel.
When you are reading your writing, all you need to do is to watch out for seven common mistakes and weak points.
If you can find them and fix them, you will be well on your way to learning how to become a better writer by improving your writing skills.
1. The Passive Is To Be Eradicated
Well, I should say that you need to eradicate the passive. It is the first piece of advice great writers learn.
The active voice is always more descriptive and gives much more information in any written communications.
The passive voice is quick and easy, and because of this, it very often simply slips out of a writer’s fingers in a first draft. But it is uninformative.
As soon as you see the verb to be followed by a past participle, change it as in the following examples.
I was instructed to go on a diet.
My doctor instructed me to go on a diet.
We have been told that our flight has been delayed.
The airline told us that there was a delay in our flight.
It is understood that we need to be on time for work.
We understand that we need to be on time for work.
You should be considered for the promotion.
Your employer should consider you for the promotion.
It is rare that you cannot change the structure. Ninety-nine percent of the time you can and should change a passive sentence structure to active.
Even with instances such as, I was born in a taxi, it is possible.
My mother gave birth to me in a taxi.
2. This, That and The Other
This might come as a surprise. Um, what will?
Starting a sentence with this or that is usually a bad idea because it is often an unclear pronoun.
Another problem is that it needs an extra verb. Very often it is the verb to be.
Always try to re-write the sentence with a more explicit connection.
I didn’t finish high school. That was because I had to work.
I didn’t finish high school because I had to work.
The government is out of control. This is why I won’t vote for them.
I won’t vote for the government because it is out of control.
We missed our flight out of London. That was why we were late for the meeting.
We were late for our meeting due to missing our flight out of London.
I felt ill this morning after all the food and wine last night. The other reason was that I went to bed too late.
I felt ill this morning after all the food and wine last night. I went to bed too late as well.
3. Commas are not for taking a breath
When you use a comma, make sure it a common use such as is in a list, after an adverbial phrase or in a non-defining clause.
If a comma is in a sentence merely because it seems like the right place to pause for a breath, it doesn’t belong there.
Long sentences, especially in blog posts and articles, are difficult to understand.
When I lived in France, I would always go to Paris at the weekend and wander the streets, just looking at people and taking in the atmosphere, as well as all the wonderful food in the shop windows.
When I lived in France, I would always go to Paris at the weekend.
I wandered the streets looking at people and taking in the atmosphere.
I loved all the wonderful food in the shop windows.
4. Out with the adverbs
You can’t get rid of them all. But the overuse of adverbs weakens writing because they replace opportunities to use much more descriptive language.
Stephen King is well known for this quote. “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
Adverbs with reporting verbs are the main offenders. Always try to find a better way. You can use strong verbs to help you remove an adverb.
… he said dryly.
… she screamed hysterically.
… they yelled loudly.
… he said with a hint of sarcasm.
… she screamed and lost control of her composure.
… they yelled at the top of their voices.
5. Re-write cleft sentences
Cleft sentences start with what or it.
The two forms are:
What I meant to say was, that I didn’t agree.
It was the colour that attracted me to the car.
A cleft sentence is a formal structure a politician, in particular, would use when they want to fill space and say as little as possible.
Always change it to a more informal sentence.
I should have said I didn’t agree.
The colour attracted me to the car.
6. Don’t be vague
When you are reading your work, look for unnecessary words and phrases. One of the best writing skills is in knowing when to delete vagueness and redundancies in complex sentences.
As you know I’m sure because it was on the local news, I have received a scholarship in English Literature.
I have received a scholarship in English Literature. Did you see it on the local news?
There is always a good reason, and therefore a necessity, to take online courses in Microsoft Word to improve your skills.
It’s a good idea to take online courses in Microsoft Word to improve your skills.
7. And, But And So
In most pieces of writing, using long and complicated linking words is too formal and interferes with comprehension.
Generally, you can use very short words for contrast, addition and reason. And, but and so are the most common. But be careful of your comma use with but.
However, notwithstanding, although and moreover are definitely words you should avoid using except in a cover letter for a job application.
If you see these long linking words, replace them with a shorter word.
I wanted to go, however, I had an exam.
I wanted to go, but I had an exam.
In addition to my law degree, I have a nursing diploma.
I have a law degree and a nursing diploma.
It’s raining. Therefore, we can’t have a picnic.
It’s raining so we can’t have a picnic.
Writers get a lot of advice.
Try reading a book a week, take a writing course or sign up for Medium and start publishing your work to get some feedback. Book for the ‘rite of passage’ seminar with Robert McKee.
All good advice. I agree that you should read a lot, practice writing every day, try different writing styles and learn.
But if you can learn to read your writing with an analytical eye and spot the seven issues I have noted above, you will improve your writing in no time at all.
If you are new to writing, using free tools can be a big help in finding ways to develop your skills.
Grammarly is one of the best online aids for writers. There is a free version, and for those who write a lot, a very affordable premium version.
If you are writing a book or a novel, Prowritingaid is another very good free option because it works extremely well in analyzing very long documents.
Once you’ve learned to recognize your weaknesses or bad writing habits, you will know exactly how to remedy them.
All it takes is the motivation to write, a little bit of practice and developing new habits that will make you a better writer.