Layout Image

5 Simple Ways to Power Up Your Writing

“”Begin at the beginning,”, the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop” ~ Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I could probably share 500 ways to power up your writing, never mind 5… but then I’d be ignoring my own opening line.  So I’m going to keep it simple.

Partly because this is a blog post, not a book (and there are plenty of books out there that will help).

But partly because there’s only so much writing advice you can take in at any one time.  And sometimes the more advice you absorb the more confused you get, and the less confident (and more apologetic) your writing becomes.

So keeping it simple, here are 5.

1. Open and Close

Start with a clear, confident opening sentence.

Finish the same way.

See if you can do the same thing within sections, even within paragraphs.

If it seems like too much of a leap to do that straight away, keep writing the way you normally do, and edit the change in later.  Ease your way into the text with the explanations, the introductions, the justifications and yes, even the apologies.  You might find it an easier way to get started.  Just make sure you go back and cut them out again later :-)

2. Activate

Writing in the active voice will help you:

  • cut excess words
  • get clear on who’s doing what
  • make your writing more readable
  • avoid long sentences and complex grammar
  • inject confidence into your writing

It’s an easy, simple and effective way to cut excess weight from your writing and make it sound more confident.  Instantly.

Trouble is, you might be over-using the passive without realising it.

And you might not know one when you see one… or have any idea what to do when you find it.

If that sounds like you…

Look for resources (books, articles, guides) on how to write in plain English.  I’ve listed some below.

Listen to your spellchecker.  A Word spellchecker will pick up most passives and ask you if you want to change them.  The suggested changes might be gobbledegook and you don’t need to accept their version - just use it as a prompt to have another look at your sentence and see if you can change it to the active voice.

Ask for help. Ask someone else to read your work - a colleague, a friend, someone whose writing style you enjoy - and ask them to help you hunt for passives.  They might be able to notice  a pattern that you can no longer see.

Once you know what you’re looking for and just want to shift the habit:

Spend a bit more time on the editing of your work.  Focus on shifting from passive to active.  Notice the difference it makes: how much clearer and lighter your words are.

Enjoy the positive feedback you get :-) (People might well start saying ‘well done’ or that they enjoyed a piece of work without necessarily knowing why).

Don’t beat yourself up about still writing that way: focus on the editing after the event and trust that your writing style will adjust over time once you get used to reading your own more confident writing voice.

Caveat: cutting passives doesn’t mean you need to get rid of all of them.  Sometimes a phrase will have a totally different (and incorrect) meaning in the active voice.  You want to get to a point where you’re comfortable writing and re-writing in different ways, and then choosing the version that works best for you and your intention.  (That way you remain active as the subject of the writing verb too :-) )

3. Cut with Confidence

Bold beginnings and endings can look stark.  We add extra words to soften them - and sometimes that’s precisely what we need to do in order to establish rapport, engage with our readers and make the kind of connections that will encourage them to read on.

But extra words are habit forming and can quickly become clutter.  In a business writing setting every unnecessary word soaks up somebody else’s time and mental energy.

Think how much energy you waste wading through vague and cluttered writing. How good would it feel to read something clear, confident, that got straight to the point?  Hold that feeling in your mind as you cut.  Do it with good intention: to make life easier for your reader, to help them get to the point.

4. One Thing at a Time

If you’re starting to feel swamped by advice on what to do: reel back.  Pick one thing.  Focus on that.  Keep practicing until it becomes a natural part of your writing muscle.

5. Ramp Up or Damp Down

We can’t just write ‘the point’ and hope people will get it.  The art and craft of writing means leading your reader to get there with you: to get it, to hear what you’re saying, to see it, to feel it with every fibre of their being.

If you cut too many words you won’t be able to do that.  You need some words that look like padding to create connections, to develop rapport, to emphasise a point, to build momentum.

The trick is to get a feel for those which are adding to your overall effect - and those which are taking away.

There isn’t a grammar rule for this, but a feeling you need to develop when you’re editing your work.

Focus on your purpose again.  The difference you want to make, the truth you want to tell.  Think about that when you’re editing.  Do the ‘extra’ words take away from that message?  Diminish it slightly, or cast doubt in your reader’s mind, or apologise for troubling them with the idea in the first place?

Or do the words add momentum, energy, power and conviction?

Do they help your readers know what it is you really want to say?

~~~

This is the second post in a series looking at ways to stop being apologetic in your writing.

I’d gathered quite a lot of resources while I was researching the topic which I’ll happily share here.  If any of you have any particularly good resources on how to hunt for and get rid of the passive voice please do let me know and I’ll add them to my collection (and the list)

Cutting, Clarity and Confidence

Write Like a Black Belt (guest post by Lori Hoek)

20 ways to cut your words and help to save the planet

KISS excess words goodbye

The day you became a better writer (Dilbert blog)

Passive

A Tip on Passive Verbs (Lynn Gaertner-Johnston)

No Place for Passive Verbs (ditto)

Passive voice (very useful free handout from University of North Carolina Writing Centre)

Business Writing Tips

Manage Your Writing (blog with weekly writing tips)

Manage Your Writing (very useful free pdf download)

How Not to Write: An Office Primer for the Grammatically Perplexed (my plain English bible)

Share on Twitter

Comments

  1. Brad Shorr says:

    Joanna, Another batch of scrumptious writing tips! You remind me how helpful it is to have trusted others read your material prior to publication. They can spot particulars such as overuse of passive voice, as well as give feedback on overall tone and clarity. One of my clients is very astute about asking for feedback, and it’s helped him become a far better and more widely published blogger and essayist.
    .-= Brad Shorr´s last blog ..The World’s Greatest Marketer =-.

  2. Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach says:

    Wonderful tips! I tend to ruthlessly cut my writings one I have the essence down; it makes my final work flow far more easily.
    .-= Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach´s last blog ..Work Brilliantly, Not Blindly =-.

  3. Karen Swim
    Twitter: karenswim
    says:

    Joanna, great tips. I wish I’d had them yesterday when writing my post! :-) I stumbled it so that others could benefit from the great coaching. With your help, I may just become a decent writer one day!
    .-= Karen Swim´s last blog ..The World’s Not Small It’s Just Sliced Really Thin =-.

  4. Iain Broome
    Twitter: iainbroome
    says:

    Great tips these. I ‘learnt’ plain English when I started my first job editing Sheffield Hallam University’s prospectus. I remember being hesitant and concerned that it would have a negative impact on my fiction.

    Turned out the opposite happened.

    I became much, much more efficient at editing my work (whether copywriting or creative writing) and the switch to plain English actually ended up being a pretty career-changing moment.

    I absolutely recommend you first Google and then check out the Plain English Campaign and its free resources.

  5. Barbara the Virtual Coach's Journal - Page 21 says:

    [...] 5 Simple Ways to Power Up Your Writing | Confident Writing [...]

  6. Brandon Cox says:

    Excellent thoughts, Joanna, especially about writing in the active voice. I think sometimes the reason short posts outweigh longer posts has nothing to do with length, but rather that they are typically composed of more “doable” and high-impact words.
    .-= Brandon Cox´s last blog ..Why I Really Like the MaxBlogPress Ninja Affiliate Plugin =-.

  7. Bo Mackison says:

    Word clutter. Seems as if all aspects of my life are all a clutter. Working on simplify, simplify.
    .-= Bo Mackison´s last blog ..Whooping Cranes =-.

  8. Jeanne Male says:

    Joanna: Thanks for generously providing needed encouragement, reminders and great resources!

  9. Naok0 says:

    Just a quick note to let you know: Thank you Joanna! This will come in useful in the coming weeks, especially for Nanowrimo. :D

  10. George Angus says:

    Hi Joanna,

    You could also title this “How to write in a nutshell”

    Truly outstanding points, delivered in your usual style. It’s a great read for any writers who have wandered off the path a bit, or for those folks who are considering having a go.

    Cheers!

    George

  11. Ulla Hennig
    Twitter: ullahe
    says:

    Joanna,
    thanks for these very helpful tips. They will help me a lot with doing all the Squidoo lenses I have to do till the end of the year (I am going for Giant Squid and that means 50 quality lenses)!
    .-= Ulla Hennig´s last blog ..Joyful Jubilant Learning celebrates its 3rd birthday =-.

  12. Tom Wanek says:

    All good tips. I especially like #2. Activate - Writing with an active voice. This little tip improves your writing by leaps and bounds. Thanks for all the resources!
    .-= Tom Wanek´s last blog ..Two Questions You Must Ask Before Crafting Your Marketing Message =-.

  13. Mark Milan says:

    I totally agree with your comments about using the active voices. The active voice is commonly the best option, but the passive voice can be important. And not just for variation and flow, but also for skim readers. Having the substance of a sentence at the start can be powerful when creating headlines or titles, as well as enticing skimmers to read more of a paragraph.

  14. [...] to change the words can help.  It gets you into the habit of writing with confidence, and listening to yourself [...]

  15. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Brad it does of course depend on a level of confidence to ask for that feedback in the first place… but it does make such a big difference, esp to track down those ingrained habits we no longer notice. (My father is the only one who’s allowed to mention mine, fortunately he sends me the notes by e-mail rather than commenting here ;-) )

    Barbara cutting can be good fun too :-) A question for you… how do you know when you’ve got the essence?

    Karen enough of the false humility! You are a wonderful writer :-)

  16. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Iain interesting - I can see how it might feel counter-intuitive to use plain English in fiction… glad it had the opposite effect. Sounds like an interesting post there in the making to share how it happened….?

    Bo that’s an interesting comment because I’d say in your writing and your photography you do reveal the essence… no clutter. It’s one of the reasons I love coming to your blog. Just sayin’, in case you didn’t know :-)

    Jeanne thank you, and for your wonderful feedback on Twitter

  17. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Naok0 thanks for stopping by to say that :-) Good luck with nano

    George thanks so much :-) Was just thinking about nutshells when your comment came in - so much of what I do with people is help them find (then write) the nutshell. I guess part of the problem though is a) finding it b) not feeling exposed about sharing it… it comes back to the words being some form of comfort and disguise

    Ulla I love how you’re stretching and learning through the squidoo process - your writing is going from strength to strength. Glad the tips are helpful to you

    Tom thanks - feedback much appreciated. The active voice does make a big difference but you know although I think most people ‘know’ it’s the right thing to do… making sure you do it is another thing entirely. I learned a lot from trying to teach it from basics the other day and wanted to try and pass on the tips for anyone who’d got stuck in it

    Mark yes, variety is important - same with length of sentences, if they’re all too short the writing starts to become choppy. Learning how and when to use different forms is all part of learning the craft I guess.

  18. Ami says:

    Great suggestions and resources, Joanna! Thanks so much for this post.
    .-= Ami´s last blog ..Creativity Corner: First Kiss =-.

  19. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Ami glad you enjoyed it :-)

  20. Kimberley Payne says:

    Thanks for a great post. This one is worthy of a bookmark.
    I especially liked your advice, “If it seems like too much of a leap to do that straight away, keep writing the way you normally do, and edit the change in later.”
    Writers write, but they also must edit, edit and edit some more.

  21. Anna Nicolle says:

    This is a wonderful blog. Thank you for sharing these great tips. Inspires me as I go into a day of writing tomorrow.
    Anna

  22. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Kimberley hello and thanks :-) That bit definitely works for some people - much easier to start writing the way you think than trying to get it right first time. Plus editing can be such good fun!

    Anna hello and thanks for the feedback. Much appreciated. Hope your day of writing went well.

  23. Ricardo Bueno says:

    You know, I’m pretty sure that I could benefit from following some of the tips noted in here a bit more closer (I’m thinking the part about cutting with confidence in particular).

    The one thing I’ve never actually done is ask someone for help in reading my work which is kinda silly since I blog openly anyway… I feel a little embarrassed asking (and I shouldn’t).
    .-= Ricardo Bueno´s last blog ..Finding the RIGHT People Makes Everything Easier, More Fun & Profitable =-.

  24. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Ricardo hi, good to see you :-) It is different asking for feedback than being open to it… but I think the act of being open and responsive does change our writing style. Esp when you’re a listening not just broadcasting blogger (as you are). Cutting with confidence can be fun and liberating, though again I’d say some people naturally cut as they write, or even before they write… it’s all really about getting to know your own writing process and style, and knowing (because we all do know really) where the camouflage is, and what we need to do to get rid of it.