Precise and expressive language can help take your writing to the next level. This week, English teacher and Insight writer Kate Macdonell gives advice on how to improve your writing.
Writing eloquently comes quite naturally to some students and not so easily to others. Often the content and the structure of an essay are sound but the writing itself is too stiff or awkward for students to gain top marks. How you tackle the task of tightening your writing and adding finesse will depend on how much time you have available to you. All of the information below will be useful in helping you to perfect your writing, but some strategies will demand more of your time than others.
If you have time on your side
One of the easiest ways to ensure precision and fluency in your writing is to read texts that are well crafted. Read them analytically, paying close attention to the vocabulary, the sentence structure and the punctuation. Your teachers and the librarian at your school can give you advice about writers whose work is highly regarded for the quality of its prose, and we have many Australian writers whose work is worth checking out; Anna Funder, Julia Leigh, Tim Winton and David Malouf, to name but a few, use a rich vocabulary to create their worlds with precision and purpose.
If you would prefer to read shorter texts to build vocabulary and to see what good writing looks like, journalists such as Tony Wright, Karen Middleton and Greg Baum should definitely be on your radar.
CREATE VOCABULARY LISTS
It is a good idea to make note of vocabulary that appeals to you and that works with the texts you are studying. One of my colleagues asks her students to purchase an address book so that they can record new words and their meaning in alphabetical order as they are exposed to them. Another way to organise vocabulary that you learn is to record it thematically. That way, if you are looking for a synonym for ‘courage’ or ‘manipulation’, you can find it relatively easily. In some ways this is better than googling a synonym, precisely because the words on your list will be ones that you have been previously exposed to and have a context for.
Writing can be hard, but keeping a writing journal will help to make the process of putting pen to paper easier and more natural. If you can spend just one or two minutes each evening writing about something you have read or experienced during that day, your writing should improve. But there’s a catch: the language style you use for this journal needs to be similar to what you would use for a text response essay – in other words, formal without being pompous.
How many times have you written an essay and handed it straight to your teacher for marking? If you have submitted a first draft then there are likely to be flaws – possibly to do with content and structure, and almost certainly to do with expression. If you have time between writing a first draft and the due date, try to leave your draft for a day or two before returning to it. With relatively fresh eyes, you should be able to notice any conceptual weaknesses, or phrases that sound awkward or repetitious. These should be fixed before you submit your work. Drafting your work will help to make the final product smoother.
If time is not on your side
So, you are in the SAC and the clock is ticking. You have five minutes left. You know that your argument is clear and valid and that your evidence is relevant. But your writing is, as usual, a little bland. What do you do?
Firstly, if you haven’t acquired a rich vocabulary from reading and writing, it is unlikely that any richness is going to make its way into your essay now. But you can make your writing tighter. You might not have time to check for and correct all of the following glitches, but the list below will give you an idea of what you can fix fast.
- Repetition of a word several times in a paragraph. Often students repeat a key word from the topic throughout the essay. Mix it up: use a synonym. Quickly look up the word in the dictionary – there may be alternatives that you can use even though you are not using a thesaurus.
- Use of the same sentence stem over and over again (e.g. ‘Kent suggests …’, ‘Agnes has …’). Vary your sentence beginnings and lengths so that your writing doesn’t appear laboured and unimaginative. For instance, you might write ‘Kent suggests …’ at the start of one sentence and then, depending on your focus and argument, write in the next, ‘The motif of the raven throughout Burial Rites further reinforces Kent’s preoccupation with …’, or ‘This idea highlights…’, and so on.
- Shifts in tense. Essays are written using the present tense: try to maintain this tense throughout the essay.
- Stilted sentences within the one paragraph. Use linking words to make the flow from one sentence to another more seamless. Linking words such as ‘certainly’, ‘clearly’ and ‘indeed’ add weight and balance to the start of a sentence; linking words that extend a point include ‘furthermore’ and ‘moreover’; and words such as ‘by contrast’ and ‘conversely’ can be used to highlight a dissimilarity. You do have to be careful that you do not repeat these words too often, and that you do not begin every sentence with a linking word.
- Use of the pronoun ‘you’. When we speak (or write blogs!) we often use the second-person pronoun, but in text responses or comparative analysis the pronoun ‘you’ is too casual. For example, you should avoid writing sentences such as ‘In Burial Rites, you know that if the raven appears then …’. It is best to avoid using pronouns, but if you feel you need to use one then ‘we’ should suffice.
- Use of contractions. ‘Aren’t’, ‘shouldn’t’, ‘hasn’t’ and ‘doesn’t’ are all examples of contractions. We use these on a daily basis when we speak or write informally, but your essays will read better if you spell out words in full (e.g. ‘does not’).
Like playing football, knitting and taking photographs, writing is a craft that takes time and practice to master. But, regardless of whether you have time on your side or not, the tips above should help you to give your writing more fluency and flair.
Looking to improve your writing? Insight’s Writing Skills by Melanie Napthine builds confidence and proficiency in expository, persuasive and creative writing. Writing Skills presents clear explanations, practical models and proven strategies for producing high-level written pieces in a wide variety of styles and text types.
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