Improving my writing

6 minute read


I have identified writing well as a skill I will prioritize. This improved skill will benefit both smaller forms I have taken for granted (like emails) and documents (like project plans or reports). Well-written emails are important because they are the most common correspondence we have with others in a professional setting. This inevitably impacts the impressions we leave for others. But I am most excited about how my improved writing will affect the projects I carry out. I remember once learning that good writing means good thinking. Experience has taught me that thinking critically about a project first is more effective than absent-mindedly probing a newly discovered dataset. As a fan of puzzles, I am usually enticed to explore a spreadsheet of numbers right away. But early restraint usually prevents me from going down a rabbit hole of an unimportant question.

I’ve tried to improve my writing before but I dealt with writer’s block. And when I was able to push the keyboard, I would make cringe-worthy errors at times. What is different this time? For one, I was inspired by Joe Posnanski’s amazing series on the top 100 baseball players in history. Each essay is beautifully crafted. Additionally, I’m in a period of work transition and I will be starting a data science fellowship soon. Good communication skills are highly prized in any work setting. And because it is the holiday season, it is a period to reflect on the past and pose goals for the upcoming year. I therefore decided as a New Year’s resolution to be more consistent in writing and be more strategic in improving. To be more consistent, I will simply write more here. To be more strategic, I am taking a Udemy class called Writing With Flair.

I am only a few lectures in but I’ve already started to incorporate some of the lessons from this class. (The post will be updated as I complete the course.)

For starters, I can adopt the mindsets of good writers:

  • Write with integrity (be real)
  • Yearn to connect (think from reader’s point of view)
  • Know your intent
  • Aspire for beauty
  • Don’t be obsessed with perfection
  • Balance the ingredients of simplicity, clarity, elegance, and evocativeness

With regards to the last bullet point, simplicity and clarity are the most important. If time allows, elegance and evocativeness can be incorporated. I’ll aim to not be dogmatic about these points but prioritize for the sentence’s purpose.

Writing guidelines

With the lessons in mind, I can start to formulate a game plan for my posts, emails, research papers, etc. Thus far, my priorities in order are:

  1. Establish your purpose. Is it to inform, persuade, entertain, or inspire? Most of my posts here will be to inform, but I sometimes unconsciously added other purposes. In retrospect, this was a distraction and lead to unnecessary time lost. (I was struck by how similar this is to what I learned in Toastmasters, a summary of which is shown here).

  2. Get ideas out and avoid writer’s block. Vomit your thoughts and don’t be afraid to let others see a rough version, provided that time sensitivity is most important. Subseqent steps will make it cleaner but provide the material to clean first.

  3. Aim for simplicity. Start editing by striking out unneeded words and sentences. Avoid sentences that carry too many subclauses. Eschew double negatives.

  4. Make it clear. Clarity is a fundamental ingredient to writing. If the idea is not clear, it does not make sense to dress it up with elegance and evocativeness.
    • Clear thinking precedes clear writing. Keep refining the idea until the fuzzy thinking goes away.
    • Avoid ambiguity by optimizing sentence structure.
    • Make comparisons crisp.
    • Place modifiers in the right place.
    • Avoid a word if it is not distinctly adding value.
    • Write directly and avoid curly construction.
    • Replace jargon and buzzwords with concrete terms an outsider can understand.
    • Check that verb tenses are appropriate. Be mindful of “it” versus “they”; use “it” for companies, organizations and other entities.
    • Careful when using “this” or “that” and ensure that it is not ambiguous what it is referring to. “This” tends to be about something upcoming while “that” is usually about something previous. Sometimes removing “that” can be cleaner. Consider the elegance of using “the”. (“Australia maintains strong trade links with China. The enduring relationship has enabled Australia to withstand recent shocks to the international economy.”)
    • Declutter and increase the signal of your main point by moving details to later sentences of a paragraph. Secondary details include specific numbers, percentages or days of the week. You don’t have to say everything at once.
  5. Edit for elegance.
    • Write gracefully with nice sentence rhythms.
    • Make sure sentences are grouped into logical paragraphs and ensure they’re not too long.
    • Adopt a “house style” to keep presentation consistency (capitalizations, periods for acronyms, headings, etc.)
    • Choose an elegant narrative flow to organize your blocks of ideas.
    • Avoid stray thoughts by ensuring all points are woven into the narrative. Transitions might be one method to bring better stability and balance between two ideas.
    • Ensure that sentences are organized into logical and consistent paragraph blocks.
    • Create sentences with musicality and rhythm if possible.
    • Keep ideas in parallel by clustering similar features in a sentence together or providing logical linking phrases. (For example, this sentence sounds awkward due to the mix of personality traits and specific actvity traits: “The new head of the department, Mr Emerson, is quiet, friendly, fond of drinking tea, witty and keen on jogging.” One way it can be made more elegant is with the following: “The new head of the department, Mr Emerson, is quiet, friendly and witty man, who is fond of jogging and drinking tea.”)
    • Avoid word echoes. Do not repeat the same substantive word within a sentence or even consecutive sentences.
  6. Make it evocative.
    • Eschew repetition in sentence structure and incorporate variety. (Similar to making sentences “musical” to make it more elegant.) Some methods could be using synonyms, using contractions occasionally, using a pronoun, and making use of punctuation.
    • Use fresh phrases and avoid cliches.
    • Remove words that weaken writing like somehow, somewhat, a little, rather, arguably, and quite.
    • Arouse senses by painting a picture, evoking tactile sensations, or using auditory words. A visual picture can be created by focusing on people and action. Saying “Some people have claimed…” is a simple way to improve a sentence like “It has been claimed…”.
    • Sparingly use sentence structures that “reverse in”. The following sentence starts with a clause but the idea conceptually is an effect of the main part of the sentence: “To help boost weak parts of the economy, the central bank has cut interest rates six times since November.” However, this kind of structure can add elegance by breaking up a string of similarly constructed “forward” sentences.
    • Write active instead of passive sentences as much as possible. Active sentences are typically shorter, punchier, and easier to grasp.
    • Writing can be bland and atonal or it can have some character. Infuse the pieces with a voice. Find the voice suitable for your purpose and write with as much vibrancy and resonance as possible. Tones don’t have to be over the top, but it must be distinctive. Do you want the writing to be sober and conservative or amusing and witty? Tones can change with the piece. Whatever the approach, adopt a character. Even writing about facts, statistics, and business cases can be infused with energy.