General writing tips

Writing anything well means being very aware of language and knowing how to use it to your best advantage. This page provides some simple tips for cleaner, clearer writing and editing. Using them will improve your writing skills considerably.


Know what you want to say before you write

It may seem blindingly obvious that you should know what you want to say before you write a sentence. However, many people start writing a sentence with several thoughts in their mind at the same time. Those thoughts then end up in sentences that are jumbled and their meaning unclear. When you are writing, focus on one point you want to make, get it down, and go on to the next sentence. Your sentences will be far clearer as a result.  


Don’t wait for inspiration

When it comes to writing, there is a widely-held myth about inspiration. It goes something like this: wait till the mood hits, until that mysterious something outside yourself kicks in. The American writer Jack London offered some very good advice about this combination of procrastination and wishful thinking: ‘You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.’

So when you’re writing something, whether it be a thesis or a piece of business writing, a college essay or a press release, don’t ever wait for inspiration; it is out there, waiting for you.


Split up your long sentences when editing

Make sure your sentences are not too long. If a sentence is long, very often it contains too much. It can be a mishmash of several thoughts, with one idea running into the next. And it usually means it can be shortened and the clarity and readability of the paragraph improved as a result. Your sentences will be shorter, clearer and more readable.   


Be active, not passive when writing and editing

As reality increasingly resembles his fictional vision, George Orwell is more topical than ever. Orwell’s novel 1984 predicted an all-watching, all-seeing authority that was aware of our every move. But with the advent of surveillance capitalism, it is not so much Big Brother but Big Data that we need to be wary of, given how tech giants have access to our most intimate secrets. From the websites we visit to the apps we use, what we say in our emails and instant messages to what we buy online, sometimes it seems as if we are uploading our very souls.

Orwell is less famous for Politics and the English language, his treatise on writing that contains a wealth of writing tips. According to Orwell, “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly.” Orwell memorably describes bad writing, poorly constructed sentences, stale imagery and lack of precision as “avoidable ugliness.”

For the sake of better writing and editing, one of the things he advises is: “Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.” Why write, for example, “the writing services were provided by me” when instead you can simply write: “I provided the writing services”? So make sure to opt for cleaner, clearer sentences by being active rather than passive.


Go with the flow

It is easy to become so fixated on writing your project (and even bogged down by writing tips) that you constantly interrupt the flow to check that everything you have written in the previous few sentences is word perfect. This can be not only an exhausting endeavour, but also one that is self-defeating. There are two impulses when writing: the creative impulse and the critical one. The writing effort is a perpetual tug-of-war between these two voices­, and creativity and self-criticism can often clash.


Writing first, editing later

The trick when writing is to let it flow, ignoring the loud background noises of hesitation and self-doubt. It will make your writing far less difficult to do. When you’re on a roll, keep the momentum going. You can always go back at a later date to carry out editing and iron out the creases. In the meantime, just go with the flow!