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  • Writer's pictureMadeleine Brodbeck


Something I need to get better at is finishing things I've started. I have a hard time finishing books, video games, and well, writing manuscripts. Being satisfied with a draft and thinking that it is "done" is difficult for me, and I also miss writing in coffee shops. That was probably my favourite place to work. I can just keep buying coffee and snacks, it smells good, I like hearing people laugh, I like the soft music in the background. It's all very romantic and appropriate for writing...

In any case, I do have a few writing rules I live by, and I think are actually really helpful for anyone starting out with, or having trouble with writing.

1) Short sentences are clearer than longer sentences.

This is always the first thing I notice when I'm editing a student's paper. It can be difficult to understand what you mean when you can't take a mental pause. It becomes convoluted and confusing. When you've been writing for a long time, it's easier to construct good long sentences. But when you're starting out, it's likely you're not Dickens. So, stick to short readable sentences. Trust me, it will make your writing better.

2) Avoid the passive voice.

This is one I held onto forever. Damn, I always wanted to write in the passive voice. Here's an example:

Passive voice: "It has been known that the sun is bright"

Active voice: "The sun is bright"

You're saying the exact same thing, but with more words. Is it really necessary? Most of the time, no, it's not necessary. It can come off as pretentious (yikes), and it takes longer for the reader to get at what you're trying to communicate. The active voice also comes across as more confident, which is more compelling to read.

3) Write in parallel.

This is one I learned from my high school English teacher, Mrs. Koskenoja, that I never forgot. Here's an example:

Not in parallel: "Twenty-five participants were placed in a group where they were exposed to an active stimulus, and 22 participants had a passive stimulus."

In parallel: "Twenty-five participants were placed in the active stimulus group, and 22 participants were placed in the passive stimulus group."

Here's another example:

Not in parallel: "I like video games, going to drag shows, and to eat many different foods."

In parallel: "I like playing video games, going to drag shows, and eating many different foods."

In parallel: "I like video games, drag shows, and food."

Match the structure and the grammar within the sentence, basically.

I remember being told in high school (by bad teachers, not Mrs. Koskenoja...) to never repeat yourself in essays. But, the thing is, sometimes it's clearer when you repeat yourself.

4) Avoid acronyms.

Acronyms are the worst. There, I said it. AATW. They're jargon and often unnecessary. Sometimes, you have to use acronyms because of word count restrictions or other rules, but, if you can avoid them, just don't use them. If you have to use them, spell them out the first time you mention them. Otherwise, you look, once again, pretentious.

5) Use an outline.

Sometimes it's hard to get started. There are lots of guides out there on how to build a good outline. When you're starting from nothing and still have a bunch of thoughts swirling around in your head, an outline is the perfect solution to get organized.

6) Be specific.

It can be easy to refer to things with "it" or "they". Sometimes it's best to just say what you're talking about directly. Instead of saying "It is really hard", say, "The pandemic is really hard". This eliminates any guesswork a reader has to do, to what you are referring to.

7) Listen to advice from someone more experienced than you.

Perhaps this is a little... hmm... "shady" of me, but once I had a student who was very resistant to the feedback I gave them and didn't like their grade. They told me their parent had a phD in English Literature. I didn't really understand how that related to anything, and it was rude and condescending. Not cool.

If someone more experienced than you is giving you feedback, listen to them and consider how it can improve your own writing.

Share with a peer and get them to edit your stuff - seriously - this is one of the best things you can do. I know it can be scary to "expose" yourself to someone like that, but it's seriously so helpful.

8) You just have to do it.

Just like exercise, getting better sleep, or making sure you drink enough water. It's one of those things that you just have to buckle down and do... Even if it's just a little bit, it goes a long way.

I should probably take my own advice on this one....

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