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Seven essential tips for improving your writing

On Radio 4's Word of Mouth, language guru Lane Greene shared his expertise in writing and offered the following great advice.

1. Open with ambition

Not with the meat of your argument or the core of the story you’re trying to tell, but with a detail or example that gets the reader right into the mood.

If you have time, consider not just rewriting and editing yourself, but reading aloud.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad…” begins Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Who is in front of a firing squad and why? You can’t start any stronger than that.

2. Keep your sentences short

This isn’t “dumbing down”. It’s in fact hard to do well, but it’s very important.

The reason is the human working memory. To process a long sentence, especially one with lots of embedded clauses, requires a reader to keep the grammar and content of the entire thing suspended in the mind. This is difficult, and it’s important not to make readers work hard to understand your grammar, especially when you want them to devote their attention to your content instead.

3. At the same time, vary sentence length

While short should be the most frequent structure, writing with nothing but short sentences will give your prose a staccato, rat-tat-tat feel that you may not be aiming for, and that readers may find tiring.

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4. Use concrete words

These are often things you can see, smell, taste or stub your toe on. They help readers by giving them something they can picture in the mind’s eye. The visual and the verbal support each other, making your message memorable and compelling.

Try to have nameable subjects doing clearly imaginable things.

5. By the same token, avoid abstractions…

… especially what are sometimes called “nominalisations” or (much better) “zombie nouns”: lifeless words like “event”, “phenomenon”, “level” or “observation”. What does a phenomenon sound like? What does an observation feel like? Academic, bureaucratic and other kinds of wooden prose genres are filled with words like this. Try to have nameable subjects doing clearly imaginable things instead.

6. Read your work aloud

If you have time, consider not just rewriting and editing yourself, but reading aloud. When you do, you’ll discover awkward phrasings that you might have missed while writing. If it’s hard to say, it’ll also be hard to read. You’ll also discover places where the rhythm just isn’t quite right.

7. Finish strongly

Save some of your favourite phrasings for last, even consider trying to end on a good, stressed syllable. The very last words are the most important of all.

Lane Greene is deputy editor of books and arts at The Economist. You can download his Word of Mouth programme on the joys of editing and how it can improve your writing by following this link.

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