I have worked as an Associate Director of Content—a fancy word for senior editor—at a Christian publisher for almost two years now. Though I’ve written for many years, as a lawyer and a blogger, I’m always learning ways to improve my writing. Writing is like preaching in many ways. You never arrive, it’s an incessant journey—developing your God-entrusted gift. I use several resources to help improve my own writing. One of my trusty resources is Gary Provost’s 100 Ways To Improve Your Writing. It’s a timeless work, that has plenty of great tips. Here are 10 of my favorite tips from the book.
1. Read Your Work Aloud
When you read your work aloud, you’ll be surprised by what you may have missed.
Provost notes: “Reading out loud will return you to the true sound of your story. You will hear the sour note of the word that’s ‘just not right,’ and the drastic changes in tone will cry out to you for editing.”Reading your work aloud works. I’ve seen its effectiveness in my own writing. As someone who writes manuscript sermons, it also helps me when preparing to preach. I’ve often caught words that may look good on paper, but didn’t sound right when spoken.
2. Expand Your Vocabulary
I consider myself as someone who reads widely. But there are millions of words in the English language. When I edit my writing, I notice words I repeat and I’m reminded that I need to continue to expand my vocabulary. There are some great vocabulary builder apps out there.
Provost suggests a helpful exercise. It involves one simple question. How many synonyms can you come up with for words you frequently use? It’s an exercise that can bring your writing to life. Try it some time.
3. Write a Strong Lead
Most people think that writing strong leads are only for journalists. But in today’s “blog-friendly” world, your lead can make or break your writing. According to Provost, the lead is “whatever it takes to lead your readers so deeply into your story or article that they will not turn back unless you stray from the path you have put them on”.
For me, leads can be blog titles, opening paragraphs, or opening sentences. All three can help draw a reader’s attention. There are other things vying for your reader’s attention. Writing a strong lead helps you stand out from the crowd.
4. Write Short Paragraphs
Short paragraphs are like tweets. Succinct, to the point, and compact. Processing longer paragraphs does a number on a reader’s eyes. It conveys a message to them.
Scan, don’t read.
Though people will still scan your shorter paragraphs, you have a better chance of them reading the entire paragraph if you limit it to three to four sentences.
(You see what I did there? Short paragraphs work well, right?)
5. Use Statistics
Nothing screams expert like statistics. Statistics establish credibility. Everyone has an opinion, but statistics turn an op ed piece to a well-reasoned, logical, argument that sounds convincing.
Be careful though. Overwhelming readers with statistics can do more harm than good. Provost notes, “statistics should be sprinkled like pepper, not smeared like butter.” Good advice.
6. Mimic Spoken Language
As a wordsmith, you may be tempted to show readers your writing eloquence. Please don’t. People want to have a conversation. If they want to hear Shakespeare, they’ll attend a play.
If your writing is conversational, then your readers will feel invited to chat. If your writing isn’t, they’ll feel like their listening to a political candidate’s stump speech. Write to encourage dialogue, not to promote a monologue.
7. Use Strong Verbs
I’m still working on this. Sometimes weak verbs rear their ugly heads in my writing. It’s not always easy to recognize, but I try to make it a practice. After I write, I look to strengthen any weak verbs.
As Provost notes, “[strong] verbs do something, [weak] verbs are something”. One great example:
Weak: A grandfather clock was in one corner, and three books were on top of it.
Strong: A grandfather clock towered in one corner, and three books lay on top of it.
Do a simple control-f search after you write. Look for these words: as, is, was, be. That will help you find any weak verbs worth change.
8. Use Dense Words
Here is another word count tip. Sometimes I use six or seven words to convey something when there is a one-word alternative. Provost notes that a dense word is “a word that crowds a lot of meaning into a small space.”
When I revise, I look for words I can condense. Doesn’t “inconceivable” work a lot better than “impossible to imagine”? Again, expanding your vocabulary will help with this step.
9. Write About People
People matter. Do you know how successful non-profits raise funds? They tell people’s stories. Statistics alone are insufficient. Susan’s personal struggle to make ends meet is more compelling than knowing the number of homeless people in America.
When you write about people, you embed an image in your reader’s mind—one that will be difficult to erase.
Provost notes: “People are why tvs get turned on…People is the subject that everybody cares about…Try to put humanity into everything you write about.”
10. Use Anecdotes
People retain stories better than anything else. I’ve learned this in my preaching. I can preach a sermon that has great biblical content. But stories bring the message home.
Years after I preach a message, people will tell me the one thing they remember about the sermon—the story I told. Jesus told stories all the time.
According to Provost, an anecdote is “a little story or incident that makes a point about your subject.” Anecdotes make abstract concepts concrete. The more you use them, you’ll notice how your communication improves.
Ten great tips from Provost’s book—one I would commend as a resource for writers interested in improving their writing.