1. Understand Your Audience
To improve your English writing, before you write one word, you need to answer some questions:
- Who are you writing for?
- Are you writing for your friend, your colleague, your manager, your examiner…?
- What do you want to achieve?
- Are you trying to give someone information?
- Are you writing to convince someone of your point of view?
- Are you writing to entertain and make someone laugh?
- Are you trying to pass an exam?
- Are you writing to achieve several different goals?
Thinking about your purpose in writing something can help you to organise your ideas.
All of these questions are important, but there’s a more important question:
What does your reader want?
Remember, when you write, you don’t normally write for yourself (unless you’re writing a diary or a journal, in which case you can write however you want). Normally, you’re writing for someone else.
Whoever reads your writing will give their time and attention to what you’ve written. Why? Why will they spend time reading what you’ve written?
For example, if you’re writing an essay at school or university, your teacher probably wants to see that you’ve understood the topic that you’re writing about. If you’re writing to a friend, your friend might want to hear some interesting or important news about your life. If you’re writing for an exam, the examiner will look for specific things which you do or don’t do in order to decide your score.
Understanding your reader or readers, and what they want from your writing, is essential. You need to think about it throughout the writing process, from beginning to end.
This is the first step, and it’s important.
Are you planning to take the IELTS exam soon? With this Oxford Online English lesson, learn how to understand the task two task and plan your answer.
So, are you ready to start writing? Not yet! Next, to improve your English writing, you need to…
2. Plan Your Writing
If you start writing without doing some thinking and planning first, there’s a high chance your writing will be unclear, unfocused, or disorganized.
Without planning, you may leave out something important, or you might include many unnecessary ideas which make it difficult for your reader to understand what you’re trying to do.
Have you ever written something and got stuck in the middle? You start a paragraph or a sentence, and you write half of it. Then, you think, “What am I doing?” “What am I writing about?” “Where am I going?” “Help!”
Why does this happen?
Often, this happens because you haven’t planned enough.
Imagine you’re trying to find somewhere in a new city with no map, no smartphone, nothing. Of course you’ll get lost. You’ll go down streets without knowing where they lead. You’ll waste lots of time just walking back and forth. If you do get where you’re going, it’ll only be because you were lucky.
Writing without planning is similar. You’ll start sentences and paragraphs without knowing how they finish. You’ll waste lots of time writing, deleting, and rewriting. If you do achieve your goal, it will only be because you were lucky.
Remember, you’re writing for someone else, and you’re writing for a reason. That means you have a goal, even if your goal is simple. You need to think about how you’re going to reach that goal.
That means you need to answer these questions:
- What points are you going to include?
- What points are you going to leave out?
- How are you going to organize your ideas?
If you’re writing something simple, you might just think for a minute or two about what to say. If you want to write something longer or more complex, it might be helpful to make a written plan.
So what points should you include, and what points should you leave out?
That’s a general question. If you’re not sure, think about your goal and your reader’s needs. Ask yourself: do my readers need to read this? Will they want to read this? Does this point fit with my goal? Thinking about these questions will help you to decide what to include, and what to leave out.
What about the third question: how are you going to organize your ideas? Let’s look:
3. Organize Your Ideas into Clear Paragraphs
Organizing your writing into paragraphs is important for many reasons:
- It helps your reader to understand the main points you’re making
- It helps your reader understand where you’re going, and why
- It helps you to stay focused on your plan and your goal
So what does it mean in practice to organize your ideas into clear paragraphs?
Firstly, each paragraph should have one main idea. If you’re writing an essay, and you have a list of points to include, each main point should get its own paragraph. Even if you’re writing something shorter or simpler, you still need to organize your ideas into paragraphs.
Don’t put too much into a paragraph—your writing will be much clearer if each paragraph is just trying to do one thing.
An extra point: there’s no minimum or maximum length for a paragraph. Sometimes, I see English learners trying to add to a paragraph because they think it’s “too short.” There’s no minimum. A paragraph should be exactly as long as it needs to be to make your point.
Secondly, and more importantly, you need to know how many paragraphs you’re going to have, and what you’re going to put in each one. Remember that this is part of planning. We still haven’t even written one word yet!
Again, you could do this planning in your head, or you could make notes on paper, or you could write a more detailed plan. That depends on you, how much time you have, and what you want to write.
But, the important point is: when you start writing, you’ll know exactly what you want to say. You won’t be thinking: “What should I put in this paragraph?” “How many more paragraphs do I need to write?” You’ll know the answers already, and this will make it much easier to actually write the thing.
OK, so now you’re ready to start writing! What next to improve your English writing?
4. Cut Empty Words and Sentences
There’s a simple rule you can use to make your English writing better and clearer: write as little as possible.
Let’s look at some examples:
First, don’t use two words if you can use one. Don’t use three words if you can use two, and so on. For example:
Don’t say very tired, say exhausted. Very is generally a weak word and should be avoided. The same goes for similar words like really, absolutely and so on. They don’t add anything to your ideas.
Don’t say as a result if you can say consequently. Don’t say on the other hand if you can say however or nevertheless. Use fewer words!
Don’t say this will get better in the future, say this will improve in the future. Don’t say she gave me a lot of help, say she helped me a lot, or even better she helped me greatly. You could also consider cutting greatly. Use one-word verbs if possible.
Don’t say maybe this will solve the problem, either say this will solve the problem, or don’t say it at all. Words like maybe or perhaps are rarely necessary. If you’re not sure about something, why are you including it?
Don’t say we need to find someone who can teach our son, say we need to find a teacher for our son. Cut unnecessary words and use fewer words wherever possible.
You can also look at sentences. Especially in essays, many people include empty sentences like:
- There are many advantages and disadvantages to this.
- Of course, there are two sides to this issue.
- In this essay, I will consider all the ideas relevant to this point.
What do these sentences tell you? Do they give you any useful information? No, and so they should be cut.
Why is this important?
Using fewer words and sentences will make your writing clearer and easier to read. It will also help you focus on what you want to say.
For each word or sentence you write, try to think: what does this add? What does this give my reader? Could it be made shorter? Shorten or remove anything which you can.
It’s not easy to write in this way. You shouldn’t expect to be able to do it immediately after watching this video. Even in this script, there are probably many words and sentences where I could use my own advice!
However, you can try thinking about it the next time you write something in English. Over time, you can learn the habit of avoiding empty words and sentences. Your writing will be much better if you do!
Next, let’s look at some more advice from Oxford Online English to make your writing clearer.
5. Use Short, Simple Sentences Where Possible
Shorter sentences are easier to read. That’s not my opinion; it’s a fact with a lot of research supporting it—the longer a sentence becomes, the harder it is to read and understand.
Also, if you’re a non-native English speaker, writing longer, more complex sentences is especially difficult. If you try to write longer sentences, there’s a higher chance of making grammar errors which can make your sentence difficult to understand.
How long is too long? Around 10 words is a good target length. Between 10 and 20 words is OK. Longer than 20 words is dangerous—there’s a high chance your sentence will become unclear and difficult to read.
So how can you do this?
Firstly, use what we talked about before: using fewer words will make your sentences shorter and tighter and improve your English writing.
Here are some other rules you can use to keep your sentences short and simple:
- Don’t use the passive unless you have a good reason to. Passive sentences are always more complex. Using the passive is fine, but you should know why you’re using it.
- Start your sentences with the subject wherever possible.
- Use relative clauses (with which, who, that etc.) only if you have to.
- When you use a conjunction like and, but, or etc., ask yourself: are these ideas really closely connected? Do they need to go in the same sentence? If not, break your sentence into two shorter ones.
To be clear, long sentences are not bad. Good writers can write long sentences which are clear, focused and elegant. If you’re writing about a complex topic, you might need to use longer, complex sentences to express yourself clearly.
The point is that you should only use a longer, more complex sentence if it’s necessary. If you can express the same idea in a shorter, simpler way, then you should.
Let’s review what we’ve talked about today:
- You need to understand who you’re writing for, and what they want from your writing.
- Before you write anything, you should have a plan: what are you going to say, and how are you going to organize your ideas?
- Your ideas should always be organized into clear paragraphs, with one main idea per paragraph.
- Use fewer words whenever possible.
- Use shorter, simpler sentences whenever possible.
These tips can help you with general writing like reports and emails as well as the IELTS Writing exam. Good luck and happy writing!