I started Agile-Mercurial to help me improve my writing. I make simple mistakes. I rush through to get it done and use “Their” instead of “They’re” more often than I care to admit. I get a bit wordy and go off in random directions sometimes; you should read some of my work emails where I take 3 paragraphs to answer a yes or no question.
I am certainly not perfect now, but I believe my writing is better than it was. I think the blog has helped me to improve my writing, and it has taught me a few things. I would like to share with you some of those lessons learned now.
1. Establish a Point or Purpose to Your Writing – Remember the 3 C’s – Clear, Concise, and Complete
My early blog posts for Agile-Mercurial averaged over 1500 words a post. Longer posts can be fine for some topics, like my Excel VBA Tutorials, but for others, I rambled on a bit in barely-related directions. I lacked a clear point to the writing. I failed to focus on the topic and fell short of fully developing what I wanted to say.
A busy office worker doesn’t want to look through thousands of words trying to find the answer to their yes or no question. A blog reader expecting a post on writing tips probably doesn’t want me to bring up that my big tip here comes from my post on creating better user stories and they may not even know what user stories are. Writing user stories could benefit from this post, but this post cannot benefit from user stories very much.
Say what you need to say and try to keep it concise. This may vary by context and message, but when writing, you must develop a clear goal for the final product. It needs to be fairly apparent by reading the communication what you are trying to say, and It needs to say it clearly and thoroughly. Your writing should also avoid a lot of loops and deviations from the intended purpose of the message.
2. Use Software Tools to Help You
Gone are the days when the only tools you had to help you write was spellcheck inside of a Word document. We have tools that are capable of so much more now, and they check more than just spelling and basic grammar.
Grammarly is a tool that checks spelling, grammar, sentence context, and more. You can download Grammarly free to your computer, or you can copy/paste your writing into the online tool to have your grammar checked (You can get Grammarly here free). They also offer a paid premium version that scans your writing deeper and gives you a few more tools to work with.
I use Grammarly on my computer, and I have an account set up to track my word usage and mistakes. Every week I get an email letting me know how many mistakes I made that the tool caught. The tool also tells me how productive I was the prior week. Below is part of my most recent email of stats. (*99% is standard for me)
Thanks to this tool I have finally figured out the difference between “Than” and “Then” and it helps catch my accidental misuse of “Their,” “They’re,” and “There.” Grammarly helped make this written section about Grammarly better, and the two fiction novels I am very slowly writing – Grammarly is helping out there as well.
The downloadable tool can also be used with Microsoft Word as well as the Chrome browser. The Grammarly software will check my work as I am writing a Facebook post. Facebook and Twitter could benefit if everyone used a tool like this.
3. Ask For Feedback – Use the Feedback
I was not very good at this one at first, but my larger written pieces seem to benefit from it greatly. I wish I had more people providing feedback now. If you can explain what you want to explain in the writing and someone else can understand it, you have crossed the first hurdle.
The second hurdle? I believe this is the hardest part. It can be difficult criticism to take when the answer to the question, “Was it somewhat enjoyable to read?” turns out to be “No!”. So ask for feedback, and accept it without getting angry, upset, or sad. Consider it an insight into how others will perceive the writing and adjust accordingly.
I am dealing with a lot of dry material on this blog, I am at a disadvantage right from the start because of that. It helps when someone tells you early that your current writing attempt isn’t quite the enjoyable read that you believe it to be. I have posts that are in progress and have been that way for six months because early review pointed out some significant problems that I would have never caught on my own; such as being really boring to read.
4. Use Word Variety and Ensure Words Mean What You Think They Mean
I have been told I overuse some words in my writing. More exciting writing has some word variety. When I write a cover letter for a job, half of my sentences tend to start with “I have,” and that makes for a very dull read.
From a real cover letter of mine:
I have prior experience leading remote teams successfully. I have telecommuted fulltime for about 4 years and led teams throughout my remote work. I have over 6 years managing projects and serving as a Business Analyst within the software and IT realms. I have prior experience as a Software Engineer for web applications.
The problem should be obvious, but when we are writing something ourselves, we don’t always recognize the problem. I see it right away if someone else were to write the above, but I don’t see it within my own writing. It took me months of writing posts for this blog before I began to spot some of the repetitiveness in word usage on my own.
I think the below rewrite sounds better:
For the past 6 years, my work has included building software applications and managing technical projects, with 4 years working remotely. Some of my more interesting duties included serving as a liaison between technical and business teams while working to improve the flow of information between departments using Robotic Process Automation.
Some tips to help with that:
- You must recognize the problem exists, and that takes actively looking for it
- Rewrite or rephrase your sentences to eliminate all but one (at most two) usages of the offending words
- For certain words, a thesaurus can be used to find replacements (https://www.thesaurus.com)
- Follow tip 3 above and ask for feedback; someone else may spot the issues easier
- Read it out loud to yourself, or at least consider how the words sound in your head
That wraps up my 4 tips to improve your writing. I hope they help you and as I learn more and improve my own writing, I will probably develop some additional tips.