Writing is far more challenging than speaking. Observe and you’ll know. Many more can speak well than who can write well. Even proficient writers face blank-screen syndrome (struggle to get started).

Probably, that’s why Kurt Vonnegut, an iconic writer, said, “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless, man with a crayon in his mouth.”

And William Zinsser, in his book On Writing Well, said, “Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”

Note that here we’re not talking of few quick lines that people write on social media, in SMSs, or in emails. Such writing is mostly junk writing. Here, we’re talking of writing that goes into essays, reports, proposals, and the like.

Let’s get straight into the topic.

This post has been organized into five sections so that you can progress naturally through the writing process. For example, the first one covers how to plan before you jump to writing. The next one is how to construct fine sentences, the building block of any writing. And so on.

The five sections we’ll cover are:

Section I: How to plan before you write? (Point # 1-3)

Section II: How to construct sentences? (Point # 4-10)

Section III: How to write coherent paragraphs? (Point # 11-16)

Section IV: What else can you do to become a better writer? (Point # 17-24)

Section V: Others (Point # 25-26)

Section I: How to plan before you write?

1. Prepare a structure – one idea, one paragraph

Ronald Kellogg, Psychology professor at Saint Louis University, has demonstrated that creating a structure improves writing process. Intuitively too we know that writing with a structure in hand is easier and more organized.

So, brainstorm different ideas on the topic you want to write on, and arrange them logically, one idea (or point) per paragraph.

For example, if you’re asked to write an essay on the ills of social media, this could be a structure:

Introduction

Brief background so that the reader knows why s/he is reading the essay. For example, you may include how addictive social media has become, with few startling statistics on per day use. In the introductory paragraph, you may also mention how the essay will be organized so that the reader knows what’s coming.

Second paragraph

At least few hours wasted every day [first idea]

Third paragraph

People are moving from real relations to virtual relations [second idea]

Fourth paragraph

Rumors spread fast on social media and some of them are leading to violence [third idea]

Fifth paragraph

Stalking and other crimes [fourth idea]

Last paragraph

Summarize. Most regurgitate what they’ve covered so far in few sentences, but if you want to write an outstanding summary, also add an opinion or where you see things going in future or the like.

Such structure will help you present your thoughts in a logical way that will be easy for others to follow.

2. Be empathetic

Great speakers speak at the level of their audience. Otherwise, most of their talk will go over the head.

Same holds for writing.

Understand your audience and tailor your writing accordingly. If you’re writing for college students, include examples they’ll relate with. If you’re writing on a technical topic to technology novices, simplify your writing through analogies and examples.

If your writing is off the mark on empathy, it’ll fail to cross arguably the biggest filter. So, at the planning stage itself, think what examples and other details will resonate with the audience.

3. Express opinions and share experiences

If you feel strongly about an issue, express your opinion. If you’ve relevant experience, share it. People want to read opinions and experiences, and not just another concoction of what they’ve already read.

Seth Godin stands out for his pithy, unique daily views on his blog. So does Gary Vaynerchuk in his YouTube videos for his inimitable no-holds-barred style. Andrew and Casey, referred in point #21, too stand out for sharing their experiences aplenty in their writings.

What’s your opinion? What have been your experiences relevant to the topic you plan to write on (for example, I’ve shared my experience of reviewing two books multiple times in the next point)?

Having said that, you shouldn’t express opinion where it isn’t required. Most reports will fall into this category.

After planning comes writing. But can you write without first constructing fine sentences? Let’s take up sentence-level issues in this section.

Section II: How to construct sentences?

4. Get proficient in grammar

Can you spot mistakes, if any, in the following sentences?

Its a wise cat that finds it’s own food in the absence of its owner.

He is one of those persons who has never run away from responsibilities.

Although both speakers were politically correct, neither was impressive.

Here are the correct forms:

It’s a wise cat that finds its own food in the absence of its owner.

He is one of those persons who have never run away from responsibilities.

Although both speakers were politically correct, neither was impressive. [There was no mistake in this sentence.]

Without sound grasp on grammar, you can’t construct correct – let alone compelling – sentences, and as a result everything else falls. A sentence, after all, is the building block of any writing.

If you’re a beginner who’s not proficient in grammar, your end goal of learning grammar should be to write correct sentences. Parts of speech, tenses, gerund, infinitive, conjunction, and what not are means, not end. You should be able to combine these components to form sentences. That’s what matters. That’s the output people look at.

If you’re looking for resources on grammar and related topics, you may have a look at the post on grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary books.

A tip for those learning grammar and punctuation rules: revisit the material you referred again after few months, and then again after a longer gap. I bet, you’ll discover something new and significant every time. (I can say this from experience, as I’ve reviewed Penguin Guide to Punctuation by R L Trask and The Elements of Style by Strunk & White at least six times.) Moreover, every subsequent review takes less time than the previous review, and even if it takes some time, you shouldn’t flinch because you’ll use these rules the rest of your life.

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5. Use active voice

Use active voice, not passive.

Active voice is direct and leaves little ambiguity on who is performing the action.

Example

The evidence has been carefully considered and there seems to be ground for disciplinary action.

Having considered the evidence carefully, I think disciplinary action is called for.

The first, in passive voice, doesn’t bring clarity on who has considered the evidence. The second, in active voice, does.

6. Avoid abstract language. Use concrete

Compare each sentence on the left with that on the right. Both intend to convey the same message, but in a different way:

Abstract Concrete
The weather is great today. It’s sunny outside, but not too hot.
Weather has improved. It has stopped raining and the sun is out again.
Despite one of the partners leaving us midway, we finished the project well ahead of time. Despite one of the partners leaving us midway, we finished the project six days before the deadline.

Sentences on both sides of the table do fine as far as rules of grammar are concerned, but the ones on right appeal far better to our senses.

The ones on right, concrete, vividly describe what’s happening – ‘sunny’, ‘not too hot’, ‘stopped raining’, ‘sun is out’, and ‘six days’. Whereas ‘great’, ‘improved’, and ‘well ahead of time’ leave lot to be imagined.

Make your sentences concrete.

7. Show relationship between sentences or clauses through appropriate words

Consider these three variants of the same sentence:

He slipped and hurt himself on his way to office, and he carried on with his work.

He slipped and hurt himself on his way to office, but he carried on with his work.

He slipped and hurt himself on his way to office. Nonetheless, he carried on with his work.

And two of another:

John likes to play, and Mary likes to watch her favorite TV series on weekends.

John likes to play on weekends. In contrast, Mary likes to watch her favorite TV series.

The first sentence in both the examples above use an additive word (‘and’) to link the two sentences. The additive word, however, doesn’t bring out the relationship between the two as clearly as other sentences (that use ‘but’, ‘nonetheless’, and ‘in contrast’).

In some places, ho