1. Read Your Work Out Loud
Listen to the music of your language. Even a 20-page term paper should be read out loud, Your ears will be able to catch all the grammatical errors that your eyes visually skip over too often. Everything from awkward language to redundant phrasing can be easily pinpointed with aural proofreading. You’ll be surprised at what you’re able to spot and revise using this method. Not only will you hear missing or repeated words; you will also catch tense shifts and hear when sentences feel too long.
2. Seek Sharper Nouns and Verbs
“Adjective and adverb-laden prose simply speaks to the need for better nouns and verbs.” This piece of writing advice—from Lorraine López, author of six award-winning works of fiction—changed our lives when she shared this gem in a writing workshop. We all know the classic advice: “Show, don’t tell.” This nugget of mentorship takes it one step further. Too often we’re tempted as writers to “decorate” our lines of prose and exposition with extensive description. The truest part of our arguments and stories, however—the most salient lines—are often the most beautifully economical. They should stand alone in their clarity and power. If they need decoration, then it’s likely they aren’t doing the work they should.
3. Perfect Your Pronouns
A lot of clarity is lost when subjects lapse into vague pronouns. For example, instead of writing “It changed his character throughout the novel,” write: “Such resilience defines his character throughout the novel.” Demonstrative pronouns (e.g. Such, This, That, These, Those) are unbelievably helpful—especially in formal writing. Once academic essays accomplish these clear linkages between ideas, each transition—and thesis—begins to resonate with readers (and graders!) Don’t merely match up your pronouns with their antecedents (i.e. the subjects they reference/repeat); rather, ensure that each and every pronoun is heavy-lifting as it should and not lingering in anonymity.
4. Aim for Variety
Variety in writing is essential. Let your personality shine through your writing. Let it breathe! You can accomplish variety through varying your sentence length, for one. Punctuate a series of long sentences with one short sentence. Or, try adding some lyricism, some rhythm, by interrupting several staccato lines with one long, winding sentence—one that feels like an exhaled breath or a lush, garden path. Sentence variety is achieved through both length variation and unique, out-of-the-ordinary phrasing. Play with variety of syncopation and word choice. Write fearlessly. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Your writing will be more compelling because of it!
5. Better Words, Better Works
Surprising diction is the heart of unforgettable writing. Yet a common misconception is that bigger words equal stronger words. Word choice, by contrast, is about flourishes in unexpected places. It’s about shocking your reader with honesty. Better words aren’t always bigger words. Sometimes they’re just pitch-perfect words, perfectly rounded and molded for the exact space they’re in. A great drafting method is underlining words and phrases whenever you’re unsure about the choices you’ve made. Don’t slow down the flow of your writing by looking up synonyms or definitions. Rather, underline the spot of uncertainty and return to it once you’ve reached a stopping point. The perfect word can always be fit into place later.