4 ways to improve your writing

August 10, 2020
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Writing well can mean the difference between an accept and a decline, a raise and a rejection, a friend and a foe. Particularly in a world where so much takes place through text, writing is a critical professional skill.

“Everyone can become a better writer,” said AACRAO Connect editor Brooke Barnett, who has degrees in English and law and over 15 years’ experience as a writer and editor. “Good writing skills are a lifelong pursuit, not a gift you either have or have not."

Transparent writing

"In my opinion, the best academic and professional writing is ‘invisible': the message takes center stage, not the writing," Barnett said. 

“Simple and direct messages are more likely to be read and received,” she added. “That doesn’t mean the ideas aren’t complicated or the writing isn’t beautiful. It just means the reader gets the communication on the first pass, without having to reread to overcome the distraction of messy writing.”

Unfortunately, “simple” doesn’t mean “easy.” Straightforward writing may actually take more time, especially during the revision process. 

To develop these skills, Barnett offers these four tips:

1. Read aloud. “When you hear your written work out loud, you find the weird phrasing, the awkward transitions, the convoluted logic,” Barnett said. “This is my number one piece of advice for all writers. Reading out loud can help you identify and smooth out rough spots.”

At first it may not be entirely clear how to improve the passage, but at least you’ll discover the stumbling blocks and know where to focus your rewriting energy.  You'll also see where you wander away from your point, which gives you a sense of where you need to...

2. Tighten it up. Once your first draft is complete, revise with the goal of making it shorter. Much shorter. 

“Generally, by combining sentences and paragraphs, reorganizing to improve flow, and rephrasing wordy sentences, I can cut an article almost in half without losing meaning,” Barnett said. Common targets for revision include subordinate clauses, elaborate verb and prepositional phrases, and long sentences.

For example: Those institutions that have employed noncognitive variables find that they have learned more about a student much earlier, and that they can better serve the student once they have matriculated.

May become: Institutions employing noncognitive variables may learn more, earlier, about current students and better serve matriculated students. 

3. Seriously, be concise. Especially online. When writing for the web (an email, blog, or social media post, for example), keep it punchy. 

"When writing online, give your audience lots of ‘entry points,’” Barnett advised. “Web readers tend to scan, so make it easy with short paragraphs, lots of white space, and plenty of bullets and subheads. That way people can get right to what they want without having to wade through extensive text.”

4. Practice. Find low-stakes ways to get writing published, and work with editors who can help you find your groove. Then write, revise, and write some more.

One option? Write for AACRAO. Connect is always looking for “Field Notes” series contributors, which are a great way to dip your toes into professional publication. For this series, Barnett works closely with authors to identify meaningful topics and polish articles to a web-ready shine.  

If you’d like to hone your writing skills with a column, please contact the Connect editor.