4 Writing Mistakes You Don't Know You're Making
November 18, 2019
Most jobs require strong writing skills now that email is the primary way to communicate with clients and colleagues. And even before you begin a job, you need to write well. You need to write resumes, cover letters, thank-you letters, networking letters, emails to hiring managers and recruiters. Without strong writing skills, you might never get the job you want. You might never get the chance to email clients and colleagues.
Even if you think you're a strong writer, you can improve. One way to do that is to buy (and read) this book: Several Short Sentences About Writing. It's a book written by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a longtime English and writing teacher at schools such as Harvard, Fordham, and Pomona College (David Foster Wallace taught there, too). Klinkenborg is also an editorial board member of The New York Times and has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, National Geographic, and The New York Times Magazine.
I guarantee that Klinkenborg's book will improve your writing skills, that it's well worth your time and money. And here, below, is a sample of the book: four mistakes that even experienced writers make, culled from Several Short Sentences About Writing.
1. Your sentences are too long.
In school you might've learned that short sentences are juvenile. If so, your teachers led you astray. There's nothing wrong with short sentences. They're clearer than long sentences. They're cleaner than long sentences. And usually, they'll make you sound smarter, not less smart.
What makes writing strong, first and foremost, is clarity. Short sentences allow you to be clear. You have more control over language when your sentences are short. As sentences lengthen, they can accumulate unnecessary words and phrases, clouding clarity and meaning.
One trick to start using shorter sentences is to examine something you've already written. It could be a cover letter, business email, or anything else you've written. See if you can cut any sentence in the piece into two sentences. Then see what happens to your writing (its clarity, meaning, rhythm) when you create two from one. And note that, no matter what your teachers told you, there's nothing wrong with beginning a sentence with And.
2. You're using extraneous words.
Your readers are smarter than you think. Don't handhold them, including words and phrases called "logical indicators." These include in fact, indeed, therefore, moreover, further, of course, whereas, thus. These words and phrases take up time and space and don't make your writing clearer.
Here's an example. Consider the following two sentences, one of which uses a logical indicator.
"George loves the color yellow. In fact, all of his clothing is yellow."
Now consider these two, without the indicator.
"George loves the color yellow. All of his clothing is yellow."
It's obvious which two sentences are shorter (and take readers a shorter time to read). Which two sound stronger?
Other words to look out for are with and as. They often weaken a sentence, are unnecessary, and indicate that one sentence can be clearer as two.
3. You're not reading your writing aloud.
Your ear is one of your most important writing tools. There's a difference between reading aloud and reading in your head. Your ear is smart. It can pick up things your eyes (and reading in your mind) can't. So use your ear to your advantage. Before you send any writing to its intended readers, read it aloud. Does anything sounds strange? If it does, edit your writing.
Let's consider the example in point #2 again.
When I read the following sentence in my mind it sounds fine to me: "All of his clothing is yellow." But when I read it aloud, the word "clothing" sounds odd to me. My ear tells me something's wrong. Maybe "clothing" is too formal, or maybe it's not exact enough.
So I look for a replacement and land on "clothes." When I replace "clothing" with "clothes" and re-read the sentence, it sounds better to my ear. "All of his clothes are yellow."
It's important to remember your ear is different from mine. Go with what sounds good to your ear. Trust your ear. It won't let you down.
4. You're not spending enough time editing your writing.
Good writing is the result of good editing. No one writes perfect first drafts. So make sure to edit all of your writing, both long and short pieces. Even one-line emails.
Examine each sentence to see if any words can be removed without compromising meaning. Can "segment of the market" be "market segment"? Can "while concurrently" be "while"? Can "and also" be "and"?
Also, examine your sentences to see if you can turn passive verbs into active verbs. Can "You were led astray by your teachers" be "Your teachers led you astray"? Can "Strong writing skills are required to get most jobs" be "Most jobs require strong writing skills"?
Editing, like writing, is hard work. When you make a change in one sentence, chances are you'll need to make changes in other sentences that come before and after it. Rhythm might have changed. Word combinations that sounded fine before might not anymore.
Don't be lazy. Examine every word. Edit for clarity, brevity, rhythm. If you put in the time, your writing will improve. And your job and career will benefit.
by Derek Loosvelt
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