Writing Rules: How to Improve Your Writing

Posted on Jul 31, 2020

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Written by Brenda Dehaan

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Writers have their own style, their own vision. Do they have to follow writing rules? Technically, writers can do whatever they want, but if they want to be taken seriously, it’s good to understand standard grammar and writing principles. 

Yes, rules have exceptions, so let’s get that tidbit out of the way right away. To maximize your writing’s impact, you should still pay attention to certain guidelines. 

Instead of an entire grammar book with rules and exercises, below are the lucky 13 recommendations to remember. (They’re not all grammar, never fear! Nonetheless, many people can benefit from a grammar review.) 

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  1. Commonly confused words – Don’t be common!
  2. Subject-verb agreement – Be agreeable!
  3. Wishy-washy words – Don’t be wishy-washy!
  4. Deadwood – Prune it.
  5. Active voice – Don’t be passive.
  6. Parallel structure – Keep your balance!
  7. Commas – Figure out if you use too many or too few…or just right!
  8. Punctuation with quotation marks – “Who wants to know where that punctuation goes?”
  9. Complete sentences vs. fragments – Understanding the difference makes the difference.
  10. Sentence variety – Variety adds spice to your writing life.
  11. Reading awareness – Writers need to read…for fun!
  12. The 3 R’s – No ‘rithmetic is necessary with these 3 R’s.
  13. Say it your way Nobody says it better!

Get ready for more details!

#1 – Commonly confused words – Don’t be common!

Spelling is not the issue here; usage is. Don’t count on spellcheck; count on your own skills because the word may be spelled just fine while being used incorrectly. 

Some of the terms below have multiple meanings; the most commonly confused versions are paired or grouped below.

  • Advice – a recommendation, a personal or professional opinion, guidance. Advice is a noun, something you may receive, give, or need! My mom always gives great advice.
  • Advise – the verb form of advice; to recommend, to guide. I advise you to listen to your mother!
  • A lot – TWO words! Everybody knows what it means, but too many write this as one word. It’s two, people! The library has a lot of books.
  • Allot – If you insist on writing alot as one word, you need an extra l and the meaning changes to “dividing something into portions, assigning, designating.” Since that’s probably not what you mean, please spell a lot as two words. I allot most of the funds to the library’s book budget.
  • Already – something happened earlier. I already ate breakfast.
  • All ready – completely prepared. I am all ready to go out for breakfast.
  • Farther – physical distance away. They live farther down the road.
  • Further – greater, extended, more in depth. We must discuss this further.
  • Its – possessive pronoun showing ownership. The chunky monkey swung from its tail. 
  • It’s – contraction for it is. An apostrophe in contractions indicates a missing letter (or letters). Autocorrect on my iPhone switches my correct it’s to its, making it auto-wrong, auto-incorrect, or just wrong. It’s frustrating!
  • Many – a lot, quantity that possibly could be counted or measured. How many iguanas infiltrated the patio?
  • Much – again a large quantity but something more difficult to count or measure; a deeper extent. I love you very much.
  • Principal – a person who’s in charge. Our school principal is a PAL of a guy! 
  • Principle – code of conduct, guidelines. That goes against my principles.
  • Quite – considerably, actually. (Remember, quite is one syllable.) I am quite impressed by your writing style.
  • Quiet – no or very little noise. (Quiet has two syllables.) Be as quiet as a butterfly!
  • Stationary – not moving or changing. I would rather exercise on a stationary bike in air conditioning than sweat on a real one outside.
  • Stationery – writing materials, often with matching decorated paper and envelopes. Tip: think of the e in stationery as envelope. I stopped buying stationery years ago because I would rather e-mail people or text them.
  • Than – conjunction used for comparisons. Sweet corn is much better than canned corn.
  • Then – adverb used to indicate next in time. I hit snooze on my alarm and then went right back into my goofy dream.
  • Their – possessive pronoun showing ownership. Their screen porch is so inviting!
  • There – adverb showing a place. It’s not here; it’s over there. (Notice how here is part of there if it helps to remember “here and there.”)
  • They’re – contraction for they are. They’re 20 minutes late…again.
  • To – preposition (usually) to express where, etc. Just take it to the patio.
  • Too – adverb for very, extremely, overly, also.  The ground is too wet for planting.
  • Two – adjective for the number 2. I have published two children’s books so far.
  • Weather – noun for climate or atmosphere. It’s been a year of historic weather.
  • Whether – conjunction signifying choices or comparisons. It all depends on whether the building sells this month or not.
  • Who’s – contraction for who is. Who’s coming with me?
  • Whose – possessive pronoun showing ownership. Whose car is parked behind mine?
  • Your – possessive pronoun showing ownership. Your birthday is tomorrow!
  • You’re – contraction for you are. You’re finally done reading about these commonly confused words. 

The subject and verb need to agree in number. Singular subjects need singular verbs; plural subjects need plural verbs. 

#2 – Subject-verb agreement – Be agreeable.

With a simple sentence, it is clear which word is the subject, so the verb agreement is easy. Add a prepositional phrase or other words between the subject and verb, and then agreement may get confusing. Remember that the subject can never be part of a prepositional phrase.

Easy: Beach Surprise shares an inspiring message for children about plastic straws. (subject = Beach Surprise; verb = shares)

Less easy: Beach Surprise: Unicorns, Mermaids, Flower Fairies, and Rainbow Rocks Meet at the Beach shares an inspiring message for children about plastic straws. (subject = Beach Surprise: Unicorns, Mermaids, Flower Fairies, and Rainbow Rocks Meet at the Beach; verb = shares)

Even less easy: The second children’s picture book in the Rockin’ Fairy Garden Tales shares an inspiring message for children about plastic straws. (subject = book; verb = shares)

#3 – Wishy-washy words – Don’t be wishy-washy.

You won’t find wishy-washy words as in a grammar book’s index, but you will find them in sentences that start with There is, There are, There was, There were, There will be…and so forth.  Starting sentences like this waters down your writing. Start with your subject, not an inverted order with nonessential words. Don’t postpone the subject.

Wishy-washy: There are watermelons on sale at the grocery store.

Better: Watermelons are on sale at the grocery store.

The grocery store has watermelons on sale.

Be direct. 

Talking is different from writing. You have time to choose your words and revise those words when you write. That gives you the opportunity to optimize your vocabulary and sentence structure.

People may start sentences with well, um, there, it, yeah, and other wishy-washy words before getting to the point. It’s more difficult to be eloquent when speaking…at least if you prefer writing.

Expletives are” filler words” like there are, there is, and all of those swear words that I won’t list. None is necessary to the meaning. At least swear words add impact; wishy-washy words detract. They deplete the energy from your writing.

Also wishy-washy can be the pronouns they, it, this and other ambiguous references. Be specific. What is it? Who are they? This what? Using pronouns for word variety works; using them generically dilutes your writing. 

He and she can be confusing also. 

Confusing: Ali told Juan that it was his turn to talk to the Customer Service representative. (Whose turn was it, Ali’s or Juan’s?) 

Clear: Ali told Juan, “It’s your turn to talk to the Customer Service representative.”

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#4 – Deadwood – Prune it.

Just like you need to trim away dead branches from a bush or tree to help it thrive, you need to eliminate wordiness from your writing. Be concise. Don’t be redundant. 

With today’s technology, people have an overload of choices to read. They don’t want wordy. If you can say something in one word instead of three, go for one.

In writing this blog, at first I said, “The point of the apostrophe in contractions is to indicate a missing letter (or letters).” 

When proofing my piece, I trimmed some deadwood: “An apostrophe in contractions indicates a missing letter (or letters).” 

The sentence length decreased from 15 words to 10. 

#5 – Active voice – Don’t be passive.

The short version: Make the subject perform the action, use lively verbs, and limit helping verbs. A typical order would be subject –  strong verb – direct object. 

The long version: Check out What Is Passive Voice and How to Improve It with Examples. When you avoid passive voice, you achieve active voice.

#6 – Parallel structure – Keep your balance.

You want your words to be in the same grammatical form to be balanced. Parallelism is a form of grammar gymnastics; balance assists in determining a fine finish.

Not parallel: I like reading, writing, and to walk. 

Parallel: I like reading, writing, and walking.

Parallel: I like to read, to write, and to walk.

#7 – Commas – Figure out if you use too many or too few…or just right.

Commas serve as a brief pause so everything doesn’t run together. Commas clarify word relationships and make the meaning clear. 

  • Noun of direct address: Set off the person’s name with a comma or two when “speaking” directly to someone. 

Would you please check the pizza, Anthony, and see if it’s ready?

Mario, the pizza’s ready!  

With writing a letter, text, or e-mail, the same comma concept applies. Hi, Heidi!

  • Compound sentences: When independent clauses are joined by and, but, or, so, yet, for, or nor, use a comma before the coordinating conjunction.

Grammar rules aren’t that fun, but they are still important to understand.

  • Introductory elements and transitions: 

Whether you go with me or not, I need to leave at 8:00. First, I need to unload and reload the dishwasher.

 If your sentence starts with a prepositional phrase, use a comma if it’s is five words long or longer. 

In the green pantry cupboard downstairs, extra supplies are shelved alphabetically.

  • Multiple adjectives describing the same noun: When you have more than one adjective before one noun, you need a comma if the adjectives have “equal” status. To check, swap their order and see if the sentence still makes sense. Another trick is to use the word and where the comma should go.

Have you ever noticed the unofficial law of gravity where gooey, drippy food automatically falls onto white clothing?

Check: The meaning doesn’t change if you switch the order to say drippy, gooey food, or if you write gooey and drippy food. Thus, use that comma with gooey, drippy food.

But that’s not all! Because commas can be complicated, Purdue Online Writing Lab’s Extended Rules for Using Commas is a helpful resource. Above are comma rules that seem to be overlooked, but they’re not the only common comma errors. Unless you are a Comma Queen or King, please check the extended information in the Purdue link or in another reputable resource.

#8 – Punctuation with quotation marks – “Who wants to know where that punctuation goes?”

“This one is easy,” said Elena. “Put commas and periods before the quotation mark; place semicolons and colons outside of them.”

#9 – Complete sentences vs. fragments – Understanding the difference makes the difference.

In English class, the emphasis is on writing complete sentences. It’s what you do. Fragments receive red halos or frag. Things change once you leave the classroom.

Fragments are acceptable IF…

  • You know they are fragments.
  • You understand why they are fragments
  • You could write them as complete sentences if you had to, but you still chose to write them as fragments for a valid reason.
  • “Like in dialogue where most people don’t speak in complete sentences.” 
  • Or when you need words for effect. You. Know. What. I. Mean.
  • If you don’t know what I mean, focus on finding and fixing your fragments.

Envision this scenario:

You are chewing a juicy cheeseburger, and you suddenly bite down on a bone fragment. Gag! You stop chewing and try to figure out what to do. After all, it’s just minuscule piece of the bone, not the entire “hamburger bone.” (Let’s not go there!) This fragment ruins your entire burger. It makes you wonder about the background of your beef. You now have your own “beef” with whoever caused that fragment. 

To carry this over into your writing, if you haven’t mastered fragments, your validity as an author is doubted and judged as inferior. It’s that simple. 

#10 – Sentence variety – Variety adds spice to your writing life.

Let’s start with the exception. If you are writing a children’s bedtime book, then it’s good to have a repetitive sentence structure. Your goal is to lull that kid to sleep. That monotonous cadence has a purpose. 

Now for the rest of you. When you are writing up a storm, you create a pattern where the words are pouring out of you like rain while ideas keep thundering in your head despite your eyes experiencing lightning flashes from working on the computer for too long. Who has time to worry about sentence variety? 

You make the time after the flow trickles away. You go back and weed that fertile landscape of words. You revise until you have long sentences, short sentences, simple sentences, compound sentences, complex sentences, compound-complex sentences. (You might even have fragments.) Overall, you want more short sentences than long.

You also want more short paragraphs than long. We live in a “smartphone world.” People read blogs, articles, and books on their tiny phones. Their eyes need white space to rest. People see short paragraphs and feel more inclined to read. Looking at an entire phone screen filled with miniature words repels instead of compels.

Back in that beloved English class, the teacher expected paragraphs to be at least 5-8 sentences long. You had to develop those ideas. Every paragraph required a topic sentence, supporting ideas, and summary.

Now that your English teacher is “history,” you still get to develop your ideas; just do it with paragraphs only 1-3 sentences long. (Sorry, English teachers!) 

Variety invites interest and keeps people reading.

#11 – Reading awareness – Writers need to read…for fun!

Words are your business. Beyond writing them, you need to read them. 

Be aware of popular books and the new releases in your favorite genres. You can’t copy another writer’s style, but you can appreciate it and absorb its flavor. Reading keeps you well-rounded. 

Read magazines. Study the catchy headlines and advertisements. They are indicators of trends and the public’s general interests.  Clever ads and headlines have mastered wordplay. 

Notice billboards. They have limited space and very limited time to capture people’s attention. Billboards with maybe 7 words still create profits for businesses featured on them. Words count.

Reading and writing work magically together. Keep the magic going.

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#12 – The 3 R’s – No ‘rithmetic is necessary with these 3 R’s.

Actually, we could have lots of R’s, but since we already covered read, let’s forge ahead with revise, rest, and review. Put this in a loop because you will be doing these R’s repeatedly.

Revise: Don’t keep track of how many times you revise. (See, no ‘rithmetic!) Repetitive revising is necessary, but before you overdo it, take a break. In other words…

Rest: Self-care is important. Let’s call it vital. You need time to yourself to regroup and be at your peak. Getting enough sleep is obviously important, but rest includes mental breaks. Whether it’s reading, walking, meditating, biking, weight lifting, swimming, doing yoga, or whatever, do what refreshes you. 

If you don’t put yourself first, no one else will. You are not being selfish; you are taking care of yourself. It’s the responsible thing to do, so stop feeling guilty about it. 

Review: You need to review your writing. Since you have “self-correcting eyes,” you need other people to also review your writing. They don’t know what it’s supposed to say like you do, so they will read the actual words, not what you thought you’d said.

Repeat with revise, rest, review until it finally has to end!

#13 – Say it your way – Nobody says it better!

Your writing style is an extension of how you think. People read your writing because they appreciate the way you express yourself. 

Think of magazines. They publish similar topics in every issue, yet the articles seem fresh each time. People subscribe to those magazines because the writers find interesting ways to cover the same old topics. 

With books and blogs, the topic options are vast. You could say so much on so many subjects. Pick one that energizes you, find your voice, and find your audience. People want to share your vision through your words. Say it your way. 

Rules overview

Some writers resist rules. They may have an instinctive urge to ignore grammar and just create. “If others don’t like it, then that’s their problem. They know what I mean.” 

Errors take the energy out of your writing. They are the proverbial red flag waving an alert: Beware! Self-published amateur who doesn’t care about the details of standard English.

If you hated English class because grammar never clicked for you, that’s OK. Grammar is abstract. Certain words represent certain concepts, parts of speech and punctuation rules take many chapters to explain, and who can remember everything?

Fortunately, you don’t have to remember everything. One of the fabulous perks of today’s technology is that you can search online to answer your grammar questions, and you can install computer programs to help you. 

The important thing is that you care enough to do your best in creating the best product possible. And if you have read this far, you care about learning more to improve your writing. Kudos to you! 

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