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How to improve your written English: 7 tips

Buying a bus ticket, going to the doctor, finding an apartment, or just, you know, opening your mouth and having a regular conversation – most students of English are impatient to talk; you’re learning English to communicate, after all.

But don’t forget that writing is another extremely important aspect of communication – even in the age of Snapchat and Instagram. To help you out, we‘ve put together seven super actionable tips for improving your written English.

1. Read, read, read

Experiencing déjà vu? You’re not alone. “Read more” is so often suggested for better writing because it works! Reading introduces you to new vocabulary, interesting word choices and beautiful phrases that you can use in your own writing. Don’t worry about what you “should” read. The point is to read widely and often. Novels, non-fiction, blogs, news articles, magazines – if it’s written (and written well), read it!

2. Ban these words

To propel your writing into another world, ban these baddies from your work: very, really, quite, good, got, stuff, and things. You might wonder how deleting a few simple words could help your writing so much. Well, the fact is that these are useless words. They don’t communicate strongly and without them, your text will mean the same – and read far better!

Bonus tip: Replace “very/really + adjective” with an “extreme adjective”. Very hungry becomes ravenous. To run really fast becomes to sprint. Really dirty becomes filthy. There are hundreds of these adjectives to use when writing.

3. Use a thesaurus

After you’ve removed useless words from your writing, it’s time to choose excellent replacements. This is where your new best friend, the thesaurus, comes in. Use it to exchange words you use too often for more interesting, suitable or advanced alternatives. (For example: cloth > fabric; money > cash; change > alter; happy > glad; decorate > embellish; improve > enhance.) Avoiding common or beginner’s vocabulary individualizes your text and makes it sound more sophisticated. However, be careful not to go overboard! Your writing still has to read naturally and make sense to your chosen audience (see point number 5).

4. Use and notice collocations

Collocations are words which tend to go together even though other word combinations are also grammatically correct. Think of the English collocation “heavy rain”. Grammatically, you could use “strong rain” – but it sounds strange to accustomed ears. Other collocations include weak tea (not feeble tea), excruciating pain (not excruciating joy), tall trees (not high trees), buy time (not purchase time), and fast cars (not quick cars) among many others. Becoming familiar with typical collocations makes your writing sound more natural.

To increase your awareness of collocations, begin with a base word – such as make, do, get, break, tell – and research associated collocations. You could also begin with a “type” of collocation and memorize a few examples. Some types are:

  • Adverb + adjective (completely satisfied, widely available, bitterly disappointed)
  • Adjective + noun (strong coffee, heavy traffic, severe weather)
  • Verb + noun (commit suicide, do your homework, make amends)
  • Noun + noun (a surge of anger, liquor licence, panic attack)

5. Know your audience

When writing, it’s super important write for your audience. Think about it: You use different language when updating your CV than when writing a university essay or article for your personal blog. Essentially, the difference is your tone and choice of words. So before tapping out any old text, consider:

Is your text more formal, such as a university application letter, employment cover letter or essay? These texts are:

  • Usually complex, with longer sentences and more thoroughly explored points
  • Less emotional and not designed to move the reader
  • Typically written with expanded words (can not, would not have, television)

On the other hand, you might be writing something informal, like a blog post, personal letter or marketing copy. In that case:

  • You can use simpler language and shorter sentences to break down your ideas
  • Include contractions and abbreviations (such as can’t, wouldn’t have, TV)
  • Use colloquial language and write as if you were speaking directly to the reader (this includes slang terms, figures of speech, asides and personal pronouns (I, you, my, your…)
  • Experiment with empathy and emotion

6. Prefer active over passive language

For clearer, more concise writing, it’s generally better to use the active voice rather than the passive. (Just look: “The shark bit the surfer,” is clearer and somewhat more evocative than “The surfer was bitten by the shark”.)

While there are often good reasons to use the passive voice – such as when talking authoritatively (“Children are not allowed to swim without an adult,”) or to tactfully avoid the subject (“The cause of the confusion was unknown”), you should avoid using it in excess.

7. Don’t write in a vacuum

It’s extremely difficult to learn alone – so be brave and ask for feedback on your writing. Good proofreaders are native English speakers with an interest in writing and language, or non-native speakers with an advanced level. After your proofreader has checked your work, implement their advice and ask for a final review before submitting or publishing your piece.

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