Improving Your Writing in an Outlier Course

Taking a writing course can be intimidating, but we are here to help! In this article, we’ve pulled together a number of tips to improve your writing skills. Improving the quality of your writing can take time, but it probably won’t be as difficult as you may think!

Did You Know?

Becoming a better writer takes practice; believe it or not, you are already practicing.

No, seriously, you write a lot. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a “writer,” you put thoughts into text more often than you realize. At the very least, you write emails, post on social media, make updates to your résumé, and message your friends.

So, now that we have established that you are already writing - let’s improve it by becoming conscious of the things you can do to give your text more structure and make your composition crisper.

Structuring Your Writing

Be Clear

“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

Albert Einstein

Before you start writing, take a moment to explain the concept to an (imaginary) six-year-old, or think about how you would explain it to your grandparents. If your writing goal is to achieve a specific outcome or argue a specific point, ask yourself what those should be. Read the writing assignment, have a clear purpose, and stick to it!

Create an Outline

When writing something more complex, with multiple angles, questions, or requests, make a comprehensive outline before you sit down to write. Making a well-thought-out strategy, or even just some quick notes about the subjects you want to write about, can save you time answering clarifying questions later.

Anticipate your Audience’s Questions

One tip for improving your writing is to put yourself in your audience’s place. Set it aside, come back, and try to read it as if it was someone else’s writing. What feedback would you give that person to improve the piece? Taking a different perspective will allow you to see if your reader will be able to follow what you’ve written.

Keep it Simple

"I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.”

Blaise Pascal

When you take the time to organize your thoughts, you can focus on keeping things simple. The idea is to give readers just enough to understand what you’re communicating in a clear, concise way. What you don’t want to do is overwhelm them. So, if you find yourself getting into trivial details and ending up with a lot more than you need, look at each piece of information and ask whether it’s essential to help your reader understand your message. If not, take it out!


Narrowing Your Writing

Sometimes we write the same way we talk. When this is intentional, it can help our writing seem conversational and easy to follow. But, sometimes, we want to use a different, more academic tone. Unfortunately, many beginning writers pick up some misconceptions and bad habits that make their "academic" voice less effective than it could be. Here are some tips we think can help!

Eliminate the “Fluff” Words and Phrases

Some words show up in our writing all the time, yet they don’t contribute much. That is why we call them “fluff,” because they don’t add any true substance! Although these filler words and phrases can add color, most of the time, they only contribute to the clutter.

Here are some you can eliminate right now:

  • in order (like when you write in order to…)
  • basically, essentially (they don’t add any value!)
  • totally, completely, absolutely, literally, actually (filler word alert!)
  • very, really, quite, rather, incredibly (rather dull!)
  • simply (simply don’t use this often!)
  • pretty (a pretty good idea to use this one sparingly)
  • just (if your sentence works without it, just don’t use it.)

If you find yourself using these, consider cutting them out completely or seeing if you can find another way to write a more engaging and direct sentence.

Get Rid of Adverbs

Adverbs (words that often end in -ly) modify verbs and sometimes adjectives. They’re okay to use once in a while, but if you use them a lot you’re probably making weak word choices. Instead of “extremely funny”, write “hilarious.” Was this scene “very beautiful,”? Sparkle your writing up with “gorgeous” or “lush.” Not only will you be more precise, you’ll also be helping keep your reader’s attention engaged.

Keep your Sentences Simple

Simplicity is key! While literary greats can write long, complex sentences with flair, you are probably not trying to write like Tolstoy. Sentences that are shorter and more direct are easier to read. Of course, variety can help keep your reader’s attention, so think about places where longer, more complex sentences could contribute to the rhythm of your writing.


General Tips

Read it Out Loud

Speaking of flow, reading your writing aloud can help you determine whether or not it flows smoothly.

If it sounds choppy, add a few longer sentences to break up that steady, monotonous rhythm.
If you find yourself struggling, you’ve found some complex sentences that need rewriting. If you’ve drafted your writing on a computer, you can consider printing it out to read, which can help you read it without remembering what you intended for it to sound like. Reading your writing out loud should always be a part of your writing process!

Infuse your Personality

Letting your personality shine through is the best way to develop a unique (and fun!) writing style. Try using the phrases that you would normally use, but, of course, within reason. When appropriate, throw in a relevant personal anecdote.

Be yourself when you write!

Practice, Practice, Practice!

It may not feel like it, but writing is a learned skill, just like riding a bike or playing an instrument. The best way to improve your writing is to do it a lot and to engage with the feedback you get mindfully, whether from instructors, peers, or even your own thoughts when you read your own writing. If you can figure out what isn’t working as well as you’d like in your current draft, you can start to think about strategies to avoid those issues in the future. The more you write, edit, and proofread, the better your writing will be!



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