Want to Improve Your Writing?

 In Writing/Editing

Start by Keeping it Simple

One of my coworkers has a sign in his office that says: I’m silently correcting your grammar. Like this coworker, I majored in journalism in college and worked in the field for several years before giving up the high salary, reasonable hours and universal public respect for another career path. Although I’m no longer a “writer” or “editor” in title, I continue applying the principles of those positions in everything I do. After all, whether you are a writer, a technical expert or some other professional, you are being judged by your words.

Let’s be honest. Most of us have been stuck in a boring meeting and ended up proofreading an endless parade of PowerPoint slides or picking apart the jumbled syntax of someone’s speech. Personally, I cannot even read the morning paper or a book without doing so through the eyes of a copy editor.

So what’s my advice for people who don’t consider themselves writers but still have to write often for work and want to avoid the silent scorn of their colleagues and peers? In a word: simplicity. Avoiding redundancies and remembering definitions will streamline your writing. Here’s what I mean …

  • Some of the most irksome redundancies are phrases such as “ATM machine” and “PIN number.” If you want to save words with an abbreviation like “ATM,” don’t spoil things by adding “machine.”
  • What time is that meeting? 12 noon. No, thank you. Just “noon” will do. There is no “11 noon” or “1 noon.” Everyone knows when “noon” is. Same with “midnight.” I’m regularly amazed at how often I hear “12 noon” and “12 midnight” on news broadcasts. It’s a lazy way to write and amplifies the need for better editing.
  • Another bugaboo is “including, but not limited to” and the use of “etc.” in a list that starts with “including.” By definition, “including” is not meant to be exhaustive. It implies that you’re leaving things out, so do yourself a favor and leave out “but not limited to” and “etc.”
  • “That sign is both red and green.” “You may have either soup or salad as a side dish.” The journey to tighten your writing often starts with one word. Strike “both” and “either” from the two earlier sentences and you’re on your way.
  • Why use 10 words when seven will do? Why use seven when you can use four?

One final bit of advice: Nothing is perfect the first time. I wrote and re-wrote part of nearly every paragraph in this post. Then I stepped away from my laptop and returned to read and edit it once more. A great way to improve one’s writing is to self-edit. It still may not be perfect, but you will be putting forth a more polished piece that will demand fewer silent grammar checks by your colleagues. If you have time, another set of eyes always helps.

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