How to Improve Writing Skills

Instructor: Margaret English

Meg has taught language arts in middle school, high school and college. She has a doctorate in Educational leadership

Does expressing yourself through the written word provide you with freedom of expression or frustration? If writing is a challenge for you, or you would just like to improve your skills, read this lesson for several concrete recommendations.

Improving Your Writing

Writing may be one of the most useful skills you will ever learn. The good news is, writing is not a special talent. Anyone can improve with some good instruction and hard work. This lesson offers some practical suggestions to help you become a more confident writer. Beginning with a discussion of the 6+1 traits of writing, this lesson will help you get your thoughts on paper, choose words carefully, organize your ideas, get a better handle on grammar and even edit your own work.

The 6+1 Traits of Writing

According to the 6+1 traits model, there are six recognized characteristics of writing. These characteristics, or traits, are: ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, conventions and presentation.

  • Ideas, of course, refers to the message of your writing.
  • Organization is the order in which you present your ideas. Sometimes ideas are better presented in the order in which events happened, or they may be better presented in order of importance.
  • Voice is the writer's personality coming across. For example, if the writer is conveying a strong emotion such as anger or sadness, this tone is referred to as the writer's voice. A strong voice means that the reader may be able to identify some characteristics of the writer as a person.
  • Sentence fluency is also a feature of writing that can be manipulated by the writer. You may have been advised by your English teacher at one time or another to avoid a list of 'short, choppy' sentences, as well as to avoid extremely long sentences. Instead, sentence variety is a desirable characteristic of good writing.
  • Conventions refers to spelling, punctuation and capitalization, as well as grammar.
  • The final, or +1, trait is presentation. Presentation is the way the writing is prepared or how well it adheres to the rules of a specific stylesheet such as MLA or APA. Presentation also refers to neatness and general appearance of the work. Each trait is equally important.

Identify What Your Readers Need to Know

Before you begin to write, it's a good idea to think about your audience. Who exactly are you writing for and what do they need to know? Your approach to writing will vary depending on your reader.

Your history professor already knows more than you about the Great Depression, but if you want a good grade, he/she needs to know that you know a lot about it too. Your cell phone company needs to understand exactly why you are dissatisfied with your service. You will need to be very specific and it wouldn't hurt to tell them what they need to do to keep you as a customer. If you are writing a memo for your co-workers, there will be some who won't bother to read your memo and others who will be detail conscious. Keep the memo to 4-5 items at most. Let them know who to contact if they have questions. An article on photosynthesis will vary in level of detail depending on if you're writing it for an elementary school biology class or a scientific magazine. Always be conscious of your audience.

Get Your Thoughts on Paper

Give yourself permission to get your ideas down before you edit. This process is often referred to as 'brainstorming'. Many of us have an imagined personal 'little editor' that becomes critical before our ideas hit the paper. Yours may have convinced you that because you were not great at spelling in second grade you are hopeless as a writer and better off not trying. Don't listen. Fire the 'little editor'. Once you get your thoughts down, you will probably want to plan an outline to help you organize our ideas. An outline does not need to be overly detailed, nor does it need to consist of complete sentences. Rather, it should function as an organizational framework.

Choose Language Carefully

Use words that everyone will understand. 'Pernicious' is a splendid word that your history professor may appreciate, but you would be better off using 'harmful' if you're writing to a broader audience. The right word does not have to be the biggest word. Use the thesaurus to help you determine which word is most appropriate. Generally, big words are more likely to complicate your message. After all, good writing should communicate clearly, but should not be overly simplistic or boring. 'Run', 'ran' and 'will run' are very nice simple tense verbs but more specific words such as jogged, dashed or sprinted may be better choices because they are more descriptive. Adding helping verbs such as 'have', 'had' or 'has' is often confusing.

Unnecessary words are confusing too. For example, consider the following sentence.

In the not too distant future many people with recognized disability problems will have access to better and better technology. (20 words)

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