Last time, we talked about the 6+1 Traits. When you take time to evaluate your work in each one, you can begin to identify areas of strength and weakness. Over time you can boost the weaker areas and become a better writer.
In the months ahead, I’ll continue to explore ways we can improve our craft using these traits to organize each recommendation, but for now, I’m wrapping up this part of the series to bring you something new. I’ll tell you all about it at the end of this post.
Writing tips, tricks, and tweaks offer immediate results, so here are four more tips to help you be a better writer.
1. Ban “the” at the Start of a Sentence
My brother, who teaches writing at a university, reminded me of this tip: Never use “the” at the beginning of a sentence. While this may seem extreme—even ridiculous—what it does is force you to find new ways to vary your sentence openers. “The” is a useful word in the English language, but let’s face it: launching a sentence with “the” doesn’t offer much oomph.
I could soften the tip and say, “Rarely begin a sentence with ‘the,’” but if you make it a rule—if you never start a sentence with “the”—you’ll force yourself to reach for creative alternatives. Almost any other word will hook the reader better than “the.”
So do it; or, rather, don’t do it. Don’t start sentences with “the.” See if you don’t write with a livelier style.
2. Vary Sentence Constructions
The first tip leads to the next: vary sentence constructions.
If you signed up for the free mini-course “Make Your Sentences Sing: 7 Sentence Openers to Add Music to Your Prose,” you’ll have one set of options you can use to mix up your sentence constructions. If every sentence began the same way, we’d be bored after only a few paragraphs.
So mix up the way you construct your sentences. When you stop using “the” at the beginning of your sentences, you’ll turn to the myriad options available to you. But think, too, of the whole sentence and how one flows to the next. Your sentences can vary not just with how you begin them, but throughout. At the editing stage, take time to craft your sentences with care and then read them aloud.
Listen for mood and tone and style—does it match what you’re trying to convey? Listen for pace—does one naturally lead to the next to keep you reading or do they lag and sag? Listen for musicality—do your sentences sing?
3. Vary Sentence Length
As we play with our sentences, we’ll want to switch up not only the type of sentences we use but also their length.
Don’t fret about these sentence-level changes while writing your draft, but as you edit, listening for the effect of your writing from paragraph to paragraph, you’ll hear your sentences work together to form the complete thought or beat.
Sometimes when we churn out a draft, we fall into a steady output that spits out sentences of similar length. When you have several medium-length sentences in a row, the piece may struggle to hold a reader’s attention. A longer sentence in there somewhere—created by combining two medium-length sentences—may be an easy solution to try.
Add punch every once in a while by inserting a super short sentence—even one with only two or three words. That’ll grab the reader’s attention better than an exclamation point. Tell the story or explain the logic, then drop in a short one. Try it. You’ll start to see how it breaks up a paragraph and gives the eye a place to stop a moment and think.
4. Be Natural
Remember how our English teachers banned contractions and the use of the first-person singular? Well, live free from those restrictions, my friend. In most situations, you’ll sound best when you use a natural, conversational tone and style.
One easy way to sound more natural is to use those contractions we were told to leave out of our written communication. Unless you write for academic journals, lose the formality. You will becomes “you’ll.” What is becomes “what’s.”
Use First-Person Singular
Same with using “I” in our writing—lose the formality.
In high school, you may have been told to leave yourself out of the essay, but how else can we take a stand and form an argument if we don’t own some of the ideas? Take it from me: use first-person singular in your nonfiction prose to sound more natural.
Don’t Break All Grammar Rules
This call to be more comfortable and conversational doesn’t mean we toss all grammar rules to the side as we do in chats with friends. Editors might pass out if you turn in something peppered with textspeak.
Be Sparing with Slang
Make purposeful choices that align with your brand, but be selective, even sparing, with slang. In some cases, this may call for a fun phrase if you aim for certain types of readers. But go easy on slang or you’ll sound too casual and possibly date your writing to an era.
If I threw into my work “groovy,” “far out,” and “I can dig it,” you’d be thinking, “Wow, throwback.” That’ll happen if you toss in too much slang today. Even a year from now, some phrases will be passé and root you in 2018.
Connect with Your Reader
In other words, while you can go too far and wind up with writing that sounds too casual, most writers who have emerged from formal academic training will benefit from loosening up a bit. A more natural style will help your reader feel more comfortable with you as they read. Your writing will feel more like an actual conversation with someone they know you personally. Wouldn’t you like that connection with your reader?
Map Tips to the 7 Traits
Each of these tips falls under one or two of the 6+1 Traits, which is helpful for the growth-oriented writer, ready to take their skill to the next level.
Banning “the” to force more creative sentence openers falls under “sentence fluency.” So does varying sentence length.
Writing in a more natural tone and style falls primarily under “voice.”
As you start to map writing tips, tricks, and tweaks to one of the six traits—or the seventh—you can create ways to evaluate a specific project and your writing in general, coming up with ways to improve over time.
Now for the announcement. After years of solo podcast episodes, I’m bringing you an author interview.
In October 2018, I spoke at a writer’s conference. I brought along my hefty podcast microphone and conducted three interviews.
I’m not converting the podcast to an interview format, but I do plan to drop an occasional interview into the mix, for variety. When you see the word “interview” in the episode title, you’ll know you should set aside more time than usual to listen. Instead of lasting only five to twelve minutes like my usual solo episodes, the interviews may last as long as 50 minutes. Also, I may not be able to include a transcript here on the website, so you may only get show notes.
I hope you enjoy them. Let me know what you think. You can always leave a comment, reach out to me using my contact form, or find me on social media.
- The Education Northwest 6+1 Traits Rubric pdf
- National Education Association (NEA) page with 6+1 Traits links and information
- All things 6+1 Traits at Education Northwest
- Ep 166: How to Be a Better Writer (Pt 1): Start with the Right Mindset
- Ep 167: How to Be a Better Writer (Pt 2): 3 Simple Tweaks You Can Try Today
- Ep 168: How to Be a Better Writer (Pt 3): Write Tight
- Ep 169: How to Be a Better Writer (Pt 4): Boost All 7 Traits of Great Writing
- Ep 170: How to Be a Better Writer (Pt 5): Four Writing Tips
- Ann’s Patreon account
- All podcast episodes
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You can subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.
Before we part ways, I want to let you know I have a free mini-course available to you called:
Make Your Sentences Sing: 7 Sentence Openers to Add Music to Your Prose
Go to annkroeker.com/sentenceopeners to learn more and to enroll for free. If it looks interesting, you can dive right in.