Last week we looked at reasons to write. As we saw, it is a vital part of life in a variety of situations such as finding (and keeping!) a job, as well as improving and supporting the other skills in English.
This week we’ll start to give you some tips to help you improve your writing:
Tip 1: Plan!
Make notes of everything you want to include. It’s a good approach to make a list of all your ideas and then you can organise these ideas into groups. The groups can help you decide what to put in each paragraph and to organise the information in your paragraphs.
Decide how you want to organise your paragraphs in the text. Do you want to put them in chronological (time) order, or follow a logical pattern such as arguments for and against an issue?
You can also plan the language you want to use. Especially if you are writing for an exam, where you want to use as many appropriate grammatical structures as possible, it is a good idea to make notes of the structures you want to use. For example, to make sure you remember to include the present perfect continuous, you could make a note I have been learning English for 5 years to help you remember to put a similar clause in your writing text.
Good planning makes a real difference to the final written text!
Tip 2: Think about WHO you are writing for and WHY you are writing.
If you are writing a letter of application, you will need to remember to use formal vocabulary and grammar; but if you are writing an article for a newsletter then an informal chatty style is more appropriate. Many exam questions assess the impact of a text on the reader; and of course in real life getting the register (level of formality) right makes sure you don’t cause offence or embarrassment. Some formal and informal vocabulary examples include:
- FORMAL: I look forward to hearing from you / INFORMAL See you soon
- FORMAL: Fruit such as bananas are good for your health / INFORMAL: Fruit like bananas are healthy
Some formal and informal grammar examples include:
- Use of contractions: We use contractions (e.g. -n’t or ’ld) in informal but not in formal texts. E.g. FORMAL: I cannot see it / INFORMAL: I can’t see it
- Use of passives: We use more passives in formal writing as it is more impersonal. E.g. FORMAL: A supermarket is being built / INFORMAL: They’re building a supermarket
- Use of phrasal verbs: phrasal verbs are usually less formal than their single-verb equivalents. E.g. FORMAL: A new shop was found while walking along St Patrick St /INFORMAL: I came across a new shop while I was walking down St Patrick St
Some tips on when and how to use formal and informal language can be found at http://www.perfectyourenglish.com/writing/formal-speech-and-writing.htm
Tip 3: Ask others for their opinion
Asking other people to read and comment on what you’ve written (peer editing) can help you to improve your writing skills. Another pair of eyes can recognize mistakes you might not have spotted yourself, and also identify when you are not making your meaning clear. You can ask fellow students, friends or family members to read what you’ve written and give you feedback; or you could start a writing club. It is a good idea to give the reader(s) – or peer editor(s) – some questions to help them to focus. Some example questions are:
- Do you understand every sentence? If any are unclear, why?
- Are there are words/phrases you would change? Which ones and why?
- Are there any sentences that are not related to the main topic?
Tip 4: Re-read what you’ve written and correct your own mistakes
Remember to proofread and be your own peer editor. You probably know what kinds of mistakes you often make so you can look out for these. When checking for spelling mistakes, it is a good idea to start at the end and work back to the beginning. Common mistakes to look for include:
- Every verb must have a subject.
- If you have he/she/it, do you need –s? E.g. *He like mushrooms
- Have you punctuated correctly? Remember that an independent and a dependent clause should not be separated with just a comma (,). E.g. INCORRECT *There were many tourist attractions that he liked, but were not easy to visit.→ Change this into 2 independent clauses → CORRECT There were many tourist attractions that he liked, but they were not easy to visit OR There were many tourist attractions that he liked but they were not easy to visit.
- Are your articles correct? If you’re talking about things in general, use a plural for countable nouns and no article. E.g. Footballers earn a lot of money. If it is clear to the reader and the writer which thing(s) are being referred to then use a definite article, E.g The footballers at Manchester United earn a lot of money.
- Check your word order. Remember the basic word order is Subject – Verb – Object (SVO). Nothing (usually!) comes between the subject and the verb, or between the verb and the object, except for adverbs of frequency (always, usually etc.) and indirect objects without to (e.g. She usually gives me flowers).
For more advanced learners, a useful website giving writing tips is http://www.englishonline.net/writing/tips/index.html