Being a strong writer in English doesn’t come naturally for everyone, but this skill can be learned! There is one rule that I live by as a writer, and I push it on my graduate and professional students a lot.
Good writing = good editing
Let’s go through examples of writing and practice fixing some common mistakes, with the goal of making the writing:
- more sophisticated;
- read with more flow.
1) Don’t repeat words.
- “I was amazed at his brainpower fueled by curiosity, constant questioning and the joy he found in his work, constantly ‘tinkering’ and keeping busy in the lab.”
- “The doctor was able to knock out genes on the DNA to observe which gene was important, and knocking it out caused a major defect.”
- Look for a synonym of the word (try thesaurus.com, but be careful to find a word that makes sense in that usage!)
- Use a pronoun (it, he, she) if appropriate.
2) Be specific.
Strong writing has details in it. The writer should use these details to paint a picture for the reader.
- “He wanted to use a procedure by taking a DNA sample from a normal person”
Comment: what does “use a procedure” mean? This probably makes sense in the writer’s head, but the reader is left confused. “Used” here is a vague verb, and also the incorrect word choice here.
- “As a child, he kept busy tinkering and working with his hands.”
Comment: This is grammatically okay, but it would be so much richer if the reader knew what he would “tinker” with.
3) Show don’t tell.
This is probably the most important technique any advanced writer can utilize for the reader. Avoid predictable patterns of writing, such as “A+B=C; A+B=C” or “I asked this. He answered that. Then I asked this. And he answered that.”)
- “I asked him what it was about his family wanting to learn new skills at an older age. He responded, ‘Because your brain does not stop.’”
- There are times when this will work, especially in a novel or magazine article. But if you use this predictable style of writing over and over again in a paragraph or essay, your writing will be boring and one-dimensional.
Being less predictable can be accomplished by using different parts of speech.
- “After pondering where the desire to constantly learn and grow in his family stemmed from, he stated simply “your brain does not stop.”
(This is just one way of changing the sentence–there are many other even better ways! Try it!)
4) Flow from one paragraph to another.
The last sentence in one paragraph must somehow lead to the first sentence in the following paragraph. Or else the reader is left confused, wondering, “Did I miss something?”
- End of paragraph 11: “The scientist received the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for her revolutionary work in genetics.”
- Beginning of paragraph 12: Dr. Vin and her fraternal twin Roger were born in 1925 in Halifax, UK.”
Do you see how there is no connection between the end of paragraph 11 and the beginning of paragraph 12? We should be creative and connect it for the reader.
- End of paragraph 11: “The scientist received the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for her revolutionary work in genetics.
- NEW Beginning of paragraph 12: “To understand her path to greatness, one must begin in 1925 in Halifax, UK where Dr. Vin and her fraternal twin brother Roger were born.”
Note: this is just ONE idea I came up with. There are plenty of other ways to add a connection between the two paragraphs! Can you think of one?
5) Subject-Verb Agreement
This seems obvious, but when you write more complex sentences, it’s important to look back and make sure your verb agrees with your subject.
- “The simultaneous discovery of the technique utilizing DNA resulted in a much more reliable method of altering animal genomes than previously used, and a more sophisticated technique behind gene targeting and knocking out genes in mice were developed.”
- The complexity of the sentence and topic distracted the writer from seeing that the subject “a” requires a singular verb (“was”) and not the plural “were”.
6) Avoid short, choppy sentences.
You want the reader to follow along with the flow of your sentences. Short sentences will break up the flow and music of your words too much and create choppiness.
- “Dr. Vin is married to Dr. Maj, also a professor at Diego University. She was one of his post doc students.”
- This is grammatically correct, but the two short sentences stop the reader too much, especially if these short sentences appear regularly in the writing.
- Try combining the two sentences together.
One way to re-write it:
- “Dr. Vin then married Dr. Maj, also a professor at Diego University and a former post doc student of his.”
- Can you think of other ways to re-work this sentence?
7) Use sophisticated, specific verbs.
Avoid vague and informal verbs, such as “make” and “get”, as well as an overuse of “to be” in sophisticated, professional or academic writing.
- “After she finished her studies at Diego University, she got a position in the department of pathology at the Institute.”
- replace “got” with –> “she accepted/earned/took/was awarded a position”
Note: “get”, “make” and too much “is” are much more acceptable in informal spoken English. In formal, sophisticated writing, avoid them as much as possible! We always prefer specific, active, strong, formal and sophisticated verbs in writing.
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