Four fast ways to instantly improve your writing

Writing is a skill that is highly stressed in an English classroom, but can often seem daunting. Whether you are writing an analytical essay on the last book your class read, applying to colleges, or composing a story, here are a few tips and tricks to easily improve the quality of your writing.

1. Cut your filter words

A filter word is a word, often a verb, that detracts from the reader’s experience by telling, instead of showing. A few examples of words to avoid are:

  • To see
  • To hear
  • To think
  • To watch
  • To realize
  • To feel
  • To look

In context, here are two passages, one of which contains filters:

  1. “Caitlin saw the rain outside her bedroom window. Her fingers felt numb. She felt the tears slip down her face like silent rivers. She realized he might never come back.”
  2. “The rain fell outside of Caitlin’s bedroom window. Her fingers had gone numb. Tears slipped down her face like silent rivers. Perhaps he would never come back.”

Cutting filter words from your writing makes you sound well-educated, which then helps the reader to trust that you are well-organized and know what you are doing. An extended list of filter words to avoid can be found here.

2. When to show and when to tell

Show, don’t tell, is a common bit of advice found in an English classroom. However, there are times when simply telling the reader what they need to hear is sufficient. So, how do you know when you are supposed to show and when you are supposed to tell?

Telling is simply stating outright what the reader needs to know. It is best used in analytical, journalistic, and other types of writings that are meant to be concise, informative, and are not focused on creating a life-like experience for the reader. In creative pieces (short stories, novels, novellas, etc.), telling is best used in scenes where characters are traveling from one place to another, when time is passing, when scenes are being recounted, or in short works, as described by inkandquills.com.

When the writer creates a mental picture with their writing by engaging the five senses he is showing the reader the scene. Doing this can help to engage the reader and evoke a sense of empathy, as experiencing a fictional world makes a character feel more life-like. This is the difference between saying that the sunset was beautiful, and saying that the sun sank beneath the horizon, painting the sky in pastel shades of pink and orange.

iceberg effectPhoto courtesy of stablekernel.com.

3. The iceberg theory

Coined by Ernest Hemingway, the iceberg theory is used by a writer to create a sense of depth in writing as described by thesarcasticmuse.com. This is the idea that the writer only shows a fraction of the knowledge they have about their subject, displaying only what is necessary for the reader to understand.

For example, in a research paper, the writer may research a topic extensively, but only include a few key facts about the topic they are presenting. While they may not state every bit of information they have discovered, thorough research still helps her to better understand her topic, and therefore write a better paper. Having this knowledge, despite not sharing it, ensures that the reader will find the author reliable.

In creative writing, the iceberg theory is used liberally in the art of “world building.” When crafting a fictional world, writers take into account physical elements, like geography and plant life, and cultural elements, such as customs, religion, and even curses. By developing the intricacies of a world, the reader will trust that the writer knows where the story is going, which then gives the writer freedom to introduce fantastical elements or far-fetched concepts.

Additional information on the iceberg theory in world building can be found here in a lecture by fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson.

4. Outline

When an individual is struggling with the direction of a piece of writing, they may be suffering from what is referred to as writer’s block. However, a simple way to combat writer’s block is through outlining. Prior to the start of writing a first draft, take the time to plot each part of your work. By doing this, one will always know what you need to write next, thus avoiding writer’s block.

Here are a few templates that can be used for outlining:

Writing isn’t always easy, but with the right mindset and resources, it doesn’t have to be as overwhelming as it often appears. Writing is an art form that takes practice to master, so be patient and let it be an extension of your creativity.


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