Writing tips by Harriet Castor

by Harriet Castor

When writing, think about WHAT you want to say before worrying about HOW you’re going to say it. It’s often tempting to try to finish a sentence or paragraph by asking yourself, ‘What will sound good here?’ But that doesn’t get good results! Instead, ask yourself, ‘What do I want to say?’ or ‘What point am I making?’

Clear thinking makes for clear writing, and clear writing is much more effective than any number of fancy phrases. Also, if you make sure you know what idea or information you want to put across before you start worrying about which words or phrases to use, the whole task of finding those words and phrases becomes much easier.

When writing an essay or dissertation you may be discussing pretty complex ideas, but you need to discuss them using clear, straightforward language. People often think that having a good writing ‘style’ means writing in a complicated way. This isn’t so. One of the most admired books on writing style is ‘The Elements of Style’ by Strunk and White, and one of the instructions this book gives is to “omit needless words”. 

What does this mean? Strunk and White explain it like this:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences…”

This doesn’t mean that you should write in short, staccato sentences or miss out details, but it does mean that you should watch out for padding and for long-winded phrases.

 Here are a few examples. You can replace “owing to the fact that” with “since” (or “because”). You can replace “the fact that he had not succeeded” with “his failure”.

You can replace “the reason why is that” with “because”. And you can replace “the question as to whether” with “whether” (or “the question whether”).

Can you find any more examples in your own writing?

If you’d like to book a confidential one-to-one session with me to work on your writing skills, please email Harriet.Castor@uwe.ac.uk I’m at Frenchay on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

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