10 Tips to Make your Writing Shine – Part 1, Structure

“Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” –  E.L. Doctorow “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” –  Mark Twain

Few activities are as polarising as writing: a creative vehicle of expression for some, an unusually cruel form of torture for others, not many people remain completely indifferent when faced with a written task. The words we place on a page, to be read by others, are a form of communication just as powerful as those we speak, at times even more so; for this reason, they should be clear, well-chosen, and a joy to read.  Faced with piles of student work to correct each week, my reactions also sway from pure delight to absolute horror: I  often suggest my students take the same pride and care in their writing as they do in getting ready in the morning. Just as we try to look our best when facing the world on a new day, so should we feel confident that our best efforts are displayed on the page. Having said that, what are the key things that make our writing great? Here are a few tips to help you get started; this week I’ll concentrate on structural aspects, leaving style for next week:
  1. Check your spelling, punctuation, grammar, and syntax.  These are the fundamentals of language, the very scaffolding that holds your thoughts together. If they are wobbly, even the most brilliant ideas won’t have much of an impact on your audience. 
  • Spelling: All computers are equipped with a spell-check tool: use it! Also, take time to memorise and distinguish between those frequently-confused words, such as they’re/their/there, it’s/its, to/too/two, or who’s/whose. Decide whether you are going to use British or American spelling and use it consistently. Check out this list: https://www.grammarly.com/blog/commonly-confused-words/
  • Punctuation: The rules of punctuation change from language to language, as they follow the natural pauses in speech. The use of the comma (,) is especially problematic!
  • Grammar mistakes, especially when made at higher levels, lower the overall standard of the text. Some of the most common mistakes are subject/verb agreement (eg. “All my friends is going to the party next week”) and tense errors (eg. “Yesterday I have taken my dog for a walk”). 
  • Syntax, the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences, includes paying attention to word order, which differs substantially according to the language; run-on sentences that confuse the reader and lead nowhere; and incomplete sentences, perhaps missing the subject or verb. Re-reading the text out loud can help bring to light many of these problems. 
2. Use any available resources, but remember: all translations are not created equal!  Dictionaries, whether online or old-fashioned, paper ones are any writer’s primary resource. A monolingual dictionary may be the best resource for more advanced students who are looking for the most suitable terminology. I personally rely on the thesaurus to supply me with synonyms while I write, but remember that it isn’t cardinal sin to repeat a word every now and then. Web resources such as “Grammarly” may also be very helpful tools to support your writing. 3. What are you writing?  Structures vary substantially between different kind of texts ( articles, essays, reviews, emails, reports…), and you should have a clear idea of how to organise your writing according to your task. It is not only the structure that varies with the kind of writing you are doing, but also the language you will be expected to use. This brings me to the next point… 4. Register  What level of formality is required for the task at hand? Formal texts tend to avoid contractions and never include slang expressions. In the past, writers used the passive voice extensively in their formal writing; however, this is changing in favour of a greater use of the active voice, which sounds lighter and less stuffy and old-fashioned.  5. Know your audience: whom are you writing for? Having a clear idea of who your reader is, his or her level of expertise and competence, is vital, so you can target appropriately. For example, if you are a medical researcher writing for your colleagues in the medical profession, you can use a range and complexity of vocabulary that would be incomprehensible to the lay person.  Also, by keeping your readers well in mind, you can target your message specifically to their needs and interests.  I hope this short checklist may prove useful as you work on the construction of your writing. I’ll publish stylistic tips, as well as links to useful resources, next week. Please stay tuned and don’t hesitate to address any questions in the comments. Happy writing!