Common Sense Ideas to Improve Your Writing

Today is Thursday, so this post is on communication skills.

I was in Japan a few weeks ago.  While I was there, I picked up a copy of the Wall Street Journal Asia, and found an interesting article in Jeremy Wagstaff’s Personal Technology column.

Mr. Wagstaff was reporting on his experience with some software called WhiteSmoke that promises to make you a better writer.  According to Mr. Wagstaff, WhiteSmoke works like this.  “You type or paste your text into what is basically a word processor, select from a drop down menu your audience – business, literary, legal or medical use, letter, thesis, speech or dissertation writing, or medical proofreading – and then his the WhiteSmoke button.  Wait a minute or two, depending on how much text is in there, and it will come back proofread.”  Your proofread document will identify misspellings and improper grammar.  It also has a thesaurus function that will recommend “better” words than the one you used.

Mr. Wagstaff tried out WhiteSmoke on one of his columns.  He says, “It (WhiteSmoke) suggested replacements for, er, ‘suggested’ (strongly proposed, was one option).  And ‘companies’ could be enriched by prefacing it with ‘renowned,’ ‘startup,’ ‘sister,’ or ‘international’ and changed to ‘businesses,’ ‘associations,’ ‘institutions’ or ‘firms.’

He concluded, “It isn’t that such a product is worthless, but it addresses the wrong problem.  Language for most of us isn’t about adding words – what WhiteSmoke calls ‘enriching’ – but about removing some of them and making sure we choose the right ones, and then putting them in the right order.  A rich vocabulary is a good thing, but not so you can drown your audience into submission with fancy words.”

I agree with Mr. Wagstaff – on a whole lot of points.  First, no software program can ever take the place of human judgment, especially on something as personal as one’s own writing.  However, a good grammar checker can help.  Second, most writing is improved by deleting, instead of adding, words.  I once read Stephen King’s book, On Writing.  He suggests that you can eliminate almost all of the adverbs (words ending in “ly’) in your writing.  I tried it, and he was right.  Third, as I’ve mentioned many times before, never use a polysyllabic (I mean big) word when a short one will do.  Finally, be precise in your language.  That means choosing the word that conveys exactly what you want to say.

Here are my common sense suggestions for improving your writing.  Use small words and short sentences.  Write in the first person and active voice.  Choose your words carefully.  Make sure they say exactly what you mean.  Proofread your work.  Spell check doesn’t catch everything.  In this post, I misspelled the word “two.”  I was typing fast and typed “tow.”  This is exactly the kind of mistake that spell check is likely to miss.  I found it as I reread what I had written.  There’s another spellcheck typo in this post, can you find it?

The bottom line common sense point in all of this?  Take responsibility for your writing.  Make sure it is clear, easy to read and understand, and says exactly what you mean to say.

That’s it for today.  Thanks for reading.  Log on to my website for more common sense.  Check out my other blog: for common sense advice on leading people and running a small business.

I’ll see you around the web, and at Alex’s Lemonade Stand.


PS: Speaking of Alex’s Lemonade Stand – my fundraising page is still open.  Please go to to read Alex’s inspiring story and to donate if you can.

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