Tips and tricks for writing

A few tips and tricks can help to improve your writing:

Sit back and relax

To get your ideas on paper in plain English, it can be helpful to imagine you are at a dinner party. The idea is to sit back, close your eyes, relax and imagine that you are explaining the topic to friends at the party. They have asked you, ‘So what is this (idea, event, project, research, etc) all about?’

Although this is usually just a starting point – the words will need to be modified to fit your audience – it may help you to identify your main message and find a simple and direct way to express it:

The project provides landholders with printed guidelines and local-sourced seedlings to support increased planting of paddock trees for biodiversity and habitat provision.
can be ‘dinner partied’ to
We taught farmers the best way to plant trees in their paddocks to provide habitat for insects, birds and reptiles. We also gave them seedlings that would grow in their area.

Similarly, for scientific content:

There is widespread agreement that polyuria, polydipsia and polyphagia are among the most commonly seen clinical symptoms of diabetes mellitus, type I.
becomes, for an expert audience
Common clinical symptoms of type I diabetes mellitus include polyuria, polydipsia and polyphagia.
or, for a non-expert audience
People with type I diabetes may feel thirstier and hungrier than usual, and also need to pee more often.

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If writing is not part of your job, get into practice with daily writing sessions of 15 minutes or more. Write about anything, but do it regularly. Some ideas:

  • Keep a log of time spent writing to allow you to track your progress.
  • Tell people that you are writing to give you some accountability for your writing objectives.
  • Find a writing project that will be meaningful in your personal life, and commit to it. This could mean writing a weekly email to a friend, or spending 15 minutes on a Sunday night writing your reflections on the past week and plans for the coming week.
  • Volunteer to take minutes at work meetings and to distribute them with key points highlighted.
  • Take notes at professional conferences and other industry events, and email a summary to your colleagues or post on social media. This will have the extra benefits of raising your professional profile and helping your colleagues by sharing important information.

To sharpen your skills, review everything you write before you send it. Emails, tweets, blog posts – get in the habit of reviewing everything for clarity and correctness.

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Revise, revise, revise

No matter how experienced you are, your writing will always benefit from revision. If possible, put the writing away for a while; this will help you to come back to it with a fresh eye. Often, mistakes will leap out at you after a break:

  • See Clear and appropriate language for common problems in writing. Fix these wherever they occur.
  • Look for errors of grammar (set your word-processing program to identify them). Again, fix these where appropriate. (But do not follow the program blindly! It can make mistakes.)
  • Read your work aloud. This is useful for picking up long sentences, convoluted phrases and nonparallel constructions. It also helps you to see whether the tone is appropriate for the audience.
  • Sum up each paragraph in a few words. This technique is useful for checking that each paragraph contains only one major idea; it also helps to show whether the content flows logically. If you do the summing up in a separate document, you can move the ideas around more easily, which can be useful in finding the most logical order.
  • Take care to re-read anything you have changed, because changes in one place often require changes in another.
  • Print out your document before signing off on it. Errors that you do not notice on screen often leap off the physical page, and you will wonder how you missed them. You can even try putting a ruler underneath each line as you read it to focus your full attention on that line of text.
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Seek help

Ask other people to read at least part of the document. It is a good idea to ask different people – for example:

  • an expert in the field you are writing about
  • someone who has a similar background to your target audience
  • someone who has a good eye for grammar and style.

For example, for a scientific paper, the author should show it to:

  • the person on the next bench (ie someone with experience in the same scientific field – to check accuracy)
  • the person down the hall (ie someone with a science background but in another field)
  • their friend (ie someone with a good eye for grammar and style).
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