7 Ways to Improve Your Prose, Style and Argument

One of the most useful courses that I’ve taken at York University was called “WRIT 2710 – Prose: Style and Argument.” The goal of the course was to help people improve their writing at both a conceptual and a sentence level. I enjoyed the course thoroughly because unlike some of my other university courses, this course endowed me with concrete knowledge that I am able to apply not only to my career but to my daily life as well.

The professor, Duncan Koerber, is one of the best professors that I’ve had in university. He gave us assignments that were both fun and challenging; one assignment had us write a personal memoir about a traumatic event in our lives, another prompted us to interview an interesting person and produce an article that did them justice. The point of these assignments was to familiarize us with different popular writing styles.

So, I’d like to share a few of the things I learned in Duncan’s course. Every writer should make use of these tips, no matter what content they’re producing:

Just about every famous writer has planned or drafted their work.

Just about every famous writer has planned or drafted their work. (The Daily Mail)

1. Be Sure to Plan and Draft: Before writing anything, it’s often a good idea to have a rough layout of your content’s structure. Writing isn’t just about editing the first thing that comes out of your head; it’s always helpful to create and compare different drafts of your work.

2. Reduce “Dead” Verbs: “Dead” verbs are essentially abstract in nature. Verbs like “to be” and “to do” are not specific and are boring to read. Therefore, you should write using “alive” verbs; some examples are “jump,” “run,” “punch,” and “blink.” These are concrete actions that readers can picture in their heads. The more specific the image you create, the more interesting your work is.

3. Avoid Wordiness: Wordiness is simply the idea of sentences having unnecessary words. Writing should convey a message in a clear and concise manner. If the content does not do this, readers can quickly become bored. Reducing wordiness occurs when writers choose to use “always” instead of “all the time,” or “first” instead of “first and foremost.” Removing unnecessary words helps content flow better.

4. Avoid Passive Voice: The ball was thrown. I threw the ball. Which sounds more specific to you? In the first sentence, there is an instance of passive voice. This means that the sentence features a verb (thrown) and an object (the ball), but no subject (I). Just like when reducing dead verbs, avoiding passive voice makes sentences more specific, and by association more interesting for readers.

5. Avoid Clichés: He was as fit as a fiddle. She was a diamond in the rough. All’s well that ends well. These are examples of clichés. They are problematic because they are stale and overused. Writing is supposed to be fresh and interesting, so writers should avoid using these outdated phrases. Some of them are also ambiguous…how can one exactly be “as fit as a fiddle?” Fiddles don’t even work out!

6. Take Advantage of Parallelism: Parallelism is when a sentence’s structure is balanced. Which sounds better to you? “I ate, worked and went to sleep,” or, “I ate, worked and slept”? Personally, I prefer the latter example. Parallelism often uses less words and completes a pattern. Readers are accustomed to learning things in patterns or lists. When writers use parallelism, they make their messages easier for readers to remember.

7. Read Your Work Aloud: This final tip pertains to the editing process, but I would argue that it is the most important. When editing your work, be sure to read it aloud to yourself. It is easier for us to miss mistakes when simply looking over our work. By reading your work aloud, you are forced to read every single word, and your brain has an easier time determining if your sentences make sense. Reading aloud, for me, has significantly improved my work.

So there you have it! Every one of these strategies is excellent for improving your writing, so I encourage you to use them. A helpful reference is Pearson Canada’s Strategies for Successful Writing, which was the textbook we used for our course. It’s very comprehensive, but easy to understand.

I hope that these suggestions have helped. If you have any questions, leave a comment here or shoot me a message on LinkedIn.