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Embrace the power of the written word and discover how your flair for writing could lead to an exciting new career as a journalist, magazine editor or children's author. Australian College of Journalism is part of Open Colleges, Australia's leading provider of online education. Read more

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  • 5 Handy Tips To Improve Your Writing SkillsRead More

    Whether you’re taking classes full-time or working and taking classes part-time, you need strong writing skills. Teachers, spend huge chunks of their lives reading and marking papers.

    Some essays land on their desk in excellent form but, more often than not, they find the same basic writing errors over and over again.  I’m not talking about spelling or punctuation errors (though you had better be certain that you caught those too), I mean the stylistic errors that make your writing sound amateur and clunky.

    Here’s 5 tips to edit your essays to make a huge difference to the clarity and readability of your work (and, more importantly, your grades!).

    1. Cut down on adverbs and adjectives

    Adjectives and adverbs, for the most part, are extraneous and don’t offer anything of value to your reader. Try to replace them with strong, specific nouns and verbs. Consider the following examples:

    • The long history of Venezuela is exceptionally full of dangerous political instability. 
    • Venezuela has a volatile political history. 

    The first example is full of adjectives and adverbs that don’t offer much more than a lot of words to read. The second example uses strong nouns and verbs, and gets the point across much more clearly.

    2. Get rid of sticky sentences

    Sticky sentences are full to the brim with glue words (the 200 or so most common words in the English language: is, as, the, that, etc). Reducing the frequency of glue words increases the clarity of your writing.  

    Here is an example:

    Original: Erica needed to get the key to the car and so she asked for the contact number of the person who was in charge of that department.  
    (17 glue words in a 27-word sentence. Glue index: 63%)

    Redraft: Erica contacted the Department Head to borrow the car key. 
    (3 glue words in a 10 word sentence. Glue index: 30%)

    The redraft saves 17 words in a 27 word sentence. The first sentence wobbles around searching for the point whereas the second sentence is concise and clear.  Find your sticky sentences and re-write them to improve readability. 

    3. Fix repetitive use of initial pronouns

    This used to make my professor crazy. As an MA student, I had a terrible habit of starting nearly every sentence with a pronoun. He did this. She did that. It is correct. Boring!  

    You should aim to have less than 30% of your sentences beginning with a pronoun. Vary your sentence structure as much as you can; it makes your writing more engaging.

    4. De-activate your passive voice. 

    Very few things annoy teachers and professors more than when their students write in the passive voice. Here is an example:

    The new law was protested, but it was put into place anyway. 

    This sentence is in passive voice, which means it is ordered object-verb-subject. It’s unclear who did the protesting and who passed the law, which is essential information. It’s also cumbersome to read.

    Start your sentences with a subject (a strong noun) followed by an active verb and an object.

    The nurses’ union protested the new law, but the council passed it anyway. 

    In this instance it’s clear who did what.  The sentence has more specific information and is written more succinctly. 

    5. Use specific language, not vague words

    Vague words are subject to interpretation. What one person thinks is “enough” may be too little or too much for someone else. Your understanding of what is “good” will probably be different from the way others will interpret it. Look at an example:

    John made some improvements on his house and it’s now more valuable.

    John replaced the roof, repainted the kitchen and laid hardwood floors in his house.  As a result, its value has increased by 10%. 

    In the second example, you have a much better idea about what was actually done to John’s house. In the first example, you don’t know if John just replaced one doorknob or completely renovated the whole place.  

    It’s absolutely worth running your papers through a free editing tool before you hand them in because a tool can find these five issues, as well as many others. A well written paper shows that you are articulate and can communicate your points more clearly; your teachers will recognise the effort.

  • What is Passive Voice and Why Should You Avoid It?Read More

    There’s a good chance that at some point during your writing career, you’ve been told that using passive voice is a decidedly bad thing and should be avoided at all costs. But how well do you really understand the reasoning behind this rule?

    What is passive voice?

    The way a sentence is worded determines whether it is active or passive. In an active sentence, the subject of the sentence is performing an action, whereas in a passive sentence, the subject is undergoing an action rather than performing it.

    For instance “Mary washed the dishes” is an active sentence, but the same sentence written in a passive voice would read “The dishes were washed by Mary.”

    Why should you avoid using passive voice?

    One reason writers are advised to avoid using passive voice is that passive sentences tend to be wordier than active sentences. Take the following sentences for instance.

    Passive voice: “The house is cleaned once a week by Sarah.”

    Active voice: “Sarah cleans the house once a week.”

    Another problem with using passive voice is that it makes the object of the action the subject of the sentence, which can make the sentence difficult to follow. Stephen King shares the following example of how this can be problematic in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft:

    Passive voice: “My first kiss will be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun.” Active voice: “My romance with Shayna began with our first kiss. I'll never forget it.”

    When is it okay to use passive voice?

    While it’s true that active voice is usually preferable, there are a few instances where using a passive voice can help you get a certain message across more effectively.

    For example, if you don’t want your readers to know who is performing an action, or if the action itself is more important than who performed the action, you might choose to use a passive voice. So rather than saying “John had moved the body since the last time they saw it” you could say “The body had been moved since the last time they saw it.” Or if you don’t want to announce that Mary ate all the cookies you could simple say “All the cookies have been eaten.”

    In short, when used thoughtfully, a passive voice can be a useful tool, but in most cases, switching to an active voice will make your writing clearer, livelier and far more enjoyable to read.

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