Secrets to Writing Better – Part I

The true secret about writing better is that there really are no secrets. There are just writers who are willing to pass along what works for them. Do a search on Amazon for “writing tips,” for example, and you’ll see more than 20,000 options for books that can teach you how to be a better writer. In other words, anything that used to be top secret about how to write, well, that cat escaped from the proverbial bag long ago.

But the bigger question may be: Why do you need to be a better writer? Not everyone makes a living at writing. And, ostensibly, you could just hire a professional to do your writing for you.

Yet if you’re working in an office, just starting a business or if you’re a university student or in graduate school, you likely will need to write in ways that are clear and make you sound like the professional you are.

You may need to write a business proposal, prepare a PowerPoint presentation, write an email or finish your thesis. Having the skills to write well enough to win a proposal bid, ace a presentation or use the right style for your dissertation references may make the difference between success or failure.

To that end, I’ll share the writing and editing tips that work best for me:

When you’re writing, keep your tools handy.

They don’t call writers “wordsmiths” for no reason. Like blacksmiths at a forge, writers use specific tools and processes as they write. I also use many of the same tools as I’m editing:

  • As you write on your computer, open a tab in your web browser for an online dictionary. The dictionary I use is the online version of Merriam-Webster, because it’s based on the official print version of that dictionary, and most style manuals refer to it.
    • NOTE: The thing I look up most in the dictionary is to determine whether a compound word is hyphenated, two words, or one word. (An example is start-up when it’s used as a noun, which becomes start up when it’s used as a verb.)
  • The next tab to keep open is a thesaurus, which will help you avoid using the same terms too often. There are many online versions, but my favorite is Power Thesaurus, because it provides a greater variety of suggested synonyms.
  • Another tool to keep handy is the appropriate style manual. There are online versions of some of them (for a fee), such as The Chicago Manual of Style. Because I edit or create many different types of documents, I use several manuals to keep me on track with style, but did you know they can also help you with grammar and punctuation?
  • Another quick way to check grammar is through a Google search. However, I check at least three Web sources before I’m satisfied that the answer is correct. YouTube also works for getting some answers.
  • Here are a few more tools I use frequently that also may be helpful:
    • Word Count Tool
    • Urban Dictionary (for slang terms)
    • Bible Gateway (for Bible verses in almost every imaginable translation)
    • Internet Movie Database (for information about almost any film or TV show you may need info about)
    • Your software’s spellchecker. Keep it on and use it to make corrections as you’re writing and run it again when you’re done.

Next week, I’ll give up secrets about the specific processes I use when I’m writing.