How to improve your writing – 1

How do you improve your writing skills?  I was asked this recently, and here are Ben’s Top Tips.  It does depend on what sort of thing you are writing of course, but if you want to communicate clearly and quickly there are some definite dos and don’ts.  First, let me recommend you do a warm-up.

Practice writing summaries

The more often you practice sorting the wheat from the chaff and discarding the chaff, the more you will  improve how well you write.  At the same time, you’ll learn to pick out the key points in what you read more quickly, and your critical thinking skills will improve.  It’s  a triple whammy, which  is why I have put it at the top of the list.

Writing a précis or summary is simple but that doesn’t mean it is easy: take almost any piece of text, estimate the number of words in it (count the number of words in the first ten lines, divide by 10 and multiply by the number of lines), and re-write it at one third of its original length.  Or a fifth. Or a tenth. This forces you to work out what it actually says (not always easy) and to get rid of supporting points and padding.  It gets easier with practice and there is no substitute.  I really cannot recommend this enough.

The Pyramid Principle

This is Barbara Minto’s not mine – so read the details in her book.  This isn’t an exercise: this is how you write clear and simple prose.

Put your most important point first and then expand on it in an orderly way. We find it hard to write like this because talking works best the other way round: we soften up our audience with minor points and deliver a knock-out conclusion. It is easy to hold someone’s attention when you are talking to them, but  a reader’s attention will wander off if they don’t know why they are reading something. Your writing is not a joke: it doesn’t require a set-up and a punch-line.

To test if you’ve got this right, read the first line of each paragraph and skip the rest.  If a reader can do this and get all your key points then you’ve followed the pyramid principle. Think of this as turning bullet points into prose if you must.

This discipline improves your thinking skills: you have to know what your key points are to make each one the first sentence of a new paragraph, and it soon becomes painfully obvious when your thoughts are muddled or vapid.

This is time consuming but rewarding.  It is time consuming because it forces you to review the text several times and to move ideas up and down the page like pieces in a puzzle.  But it is rewarding because you cut out duplication and your final text is easy to read and understand.

This was originally the first part of a longer post, but I’ve decided to split it in two.  These are the most important points anyway, and I didn’t want to confuse you.

No-one gets it right the first time, so the final tip is: revise, revise, revise.


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4 responses to “How to improve your writing – 1

  1. Pingback: Twitter Trackbacks for How to improve your writing – 1 « Thinking about it… [benwarsop.wordpress.com] on Topsy.com

  2. Interesting, I like the pyramid principle. I use that when I have to give oral exams and talk for 30 minutes about a topic: my first line is my bald hypothesis which then I try to justify, it works because professors start debating themselves and do most of the talking for me. I guess the pyramid principle is very useful when it comes to providing information in a didactic more than in an artful way. There are many ways of writing, there are writers that do not write thinking about readers’ comprehension of the text but of the effect they wish to achieve (Poe has an interesting theory, being a master of the effect). I like writers that demand and do not underestimate the reader, I like writers that force you to have to read again; complexity in writing is rich in possibilities because it does not simplify the meaning nor the message nor the ideology that may be expressed on the text and I personally like ambiguity, of course only in some contexts, I do not enjoy ambiguity at all in political discourse nor if a doctor or lawyer is explaining something…

  3. Do you think that the writers who are writing for effect are actually writing poetry even if the structure is prose? They say poetry is what gets lost in translation.

    This piece is about how to write prosaic prose, with one meaning clearly outlined. I like writing like this because (1) it forces me to think clearly and (2) it’s hard. But you are right about its limitations.

    Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

    Ben

  4. Pingback: How to improve your writing – 2 « Thinking about it…

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