Critters, Culture, and Compost: 5 Tips toward Better Writing

Okay, I’ll admit, this is far from the most interesting thing I’ve written about this year. Even I’m not excited to write about it. I really don’t enjoy writing most of the time. But I can’t argue against it as a necessary skill, one that has perhaps the greatest ability to transform your life.

A well-crafted piece of writing can get you entrance into the program you want, get you the grant you need, get you the raise you deserve, and so on. It probably won’t win you a Facebook argument, though, I’ll give you that one. Although knowing your audience and the most effective way to reach them could probably turn you into the social media warrior you’ve dreamed of becoming. (I kind of threw up in my mouth a little at that thought… please don’t do that.)

Total aside, as I write this, my rabbit is tearing around my office throwing a sock around. Just so you can understand what I’m working with today. 

So, as someone whose careers and education have been a constant education in writing and teaching others to write, here are my top five tips for helping your writing stand out – for the better – amongst the crowd. 

  1. Know Your Audience: This one can take a little work on your part, but it’ll be worth it. Essentially, know who you’re writing for, whether that’s a company, university, or grant agency (or even your favorite online news source… *cough, cough*). What are their goals and mission statement? What do they value? Because those will tell you the kinds of people they’re looking for. Who are your likely readers? Are they experts in a field, the general public, a certain segment of the public? Those will tell you the language and tone to adopt. Just as we write or text differently depending on who we’re talking to (parents vs friends vs partner, often without thinking), you should also adjust accordingly for everything else. 
  2. Don’t Trust Word: Google Docs, Word, or whatever software you’re using aren’t going to catch all your spelling errors or typos, and may even suggest phrasing or punctuation that make no sense. If you do nothing else, learn the difference between loose and lose; affect and effect; they’re, their, and there; your and you’re; than and then. Commas can be tricky (I still have to think about those sometimes), but being able to spell and use basic words/terms correctly can even make a difference in the dreaded social media comments section of your favorite platform.  
  3. Phone a Friend: By friend, I mean someone you trust enough and think well enough of to read your paper and give you constructive feedback. Not just “Yeah, man, looks good.” You want feedback like “This argument contradicts itself” or “You just used ‘also’ 15 times in one paragraph.” If you’re in college, consider asking your instructor if they could look over your draft paper and give you some quick feedback. As a copyeditor, I find that everyone… everyone… has words or phrases they use excessively. Probably the most common overly used words are “that,” “also,” and “some,” but one of my advisors preferred the word “elucidate” so frequently that I always associate the word with him. However, even if it’s been looked over by a friend, please reread your own papers before hitting submit. Please. 
  4. Less is More: I guarantee that no one wants to read your 15-page paper which repeats your same single thought over and over, either because you’re trying to reach a page limit or are operating under the mistaken belief that you’ll wow the reader with all these words. Nope. Your reader tuned out 12 pages ago, and your paper has been tossed in the “forgotten” pile. Brevity, succinctness, these are your friends. Get to your point, support your point, and move on to the next one. Also, make sure that point is relevant to what’s being asked. Don’t go down that rabbit hole of non-related but interesting nuggets that you’re dying to share, just don’t. Of all the tips, this one probably takes the most practice, and may need the assistance of a good writing resource, more than the others. 
  5. Embrace Technology: You have the world at your fingertips when you are online, sitting at a computer, typing up that paper or proposal at the last minute. Find yourself using “also” too often, a quick search from a thesaurus can help you with that. I use the Merriam-Webster dictionary online all the time. Google “What the heck is an Oxford comma, and how do I use it?” Need to go from the hum-drum passive verbs to some heckin’ action? The world is your oyster, my friend. 

Well, that’s that. I hope you find these tips helpful. I’m off to start putting the pieces together for a couple grant proposals, and my first steps are learning about the crowd I’m pitching them to.

By the way, the rabbit is now passed out in the closet of my office, with the sock, dreaming about whatever bunnies dream about. You know, in case you were wondering.  

Amy East is a freelance copyeditor, wannabe homesteader, and recovering archaeologist living in Cass County. She loves her family, her menagerie of animals, and her garden, although depending on the day, the order of those may vary. 

Any views or opinions expressed in “Critters, Culture, & Compost” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.


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