Tips on improving one's non-narrative writing?

The ‘non-narrative writing’ I refer to is, specifically, academic writing of a non-technical nature (for example, a college English paper). Let’s go with an English paper as an example because that’s what specifically prompted this thread. Whenever I try to spice this kind of writing, I end up using turns of phrase that seem embarassingly literary. If it sounds too creative or flowery, it just smacks of pretentiousness. I know I’m an ok writer, but my work usually ends up fraught with hedgewords, extraneous nothings, and awkward, overextended syntax. What are some tips y’all have? I’m interested more on a micro level of how to write better and more interesting sentences, not on a macro level of how to structure a piece (though God knows I suck at that as well).

Expository writing should strive to communicate clearly, not to impress. That is my firm conviction, and as a reader I much prefer writing that is plain and clear, to writing that is elegant but muddled (of course, elegant and clear is best, but all too rare). There are a number of rules of thumb by which you can be guided, but experience and honest feedback from others have been my best teachers.

If you are not sure how to start, you might try this: write an outline of the points you want to make; this will give you an opportunity to organize the flow of ideas in a way that will make sense to your readers. Then fill in the outline with short, declarative sentences in the active voice. Be sure to separate different points into paragraphs. If at this point you are satisfied with the content but not with the style, you can vary your sentence structure a bit, alternating shorter with longer sentences, or simple with more compound sentences. Be careful of overdoing it, or you can get back into your old ways of pointless over-elaboration. You seem to be asking for particular help in this area; I’m afraid my understanding of the details of grammar and sentence structure is too intuitive for me to be able to give you that specific sort of help. I read a lot. Perhaps I am just imitating other writers I admire, I’m not sure.

The single best skill you can seek to develop is to put yourself in the place of your reader. If you are conveying information, start from what your reader is likely to know. If you are trying to persuade, start from your reader’s likely point of view. Then pitch your vocabulary at the level your reader will be comfortable with. Your readers will thank you for it.

I hope this helps. I have benefited greatly from the help of others in giving feedback on my work. I hope you can find others who will do the same for you. Good luck.


Never use the word “incorrigible,” and stay away from “pith,” if you can. You say you are wary of frothing at the keyboard. When you get that feeling, see if you can say the same thing more simply. It’s tricky to whittle away the frills and not lop off your style. You have to find that balance for yourself. Hey, I’m not Bennet Cerf. :smiley:

Hi! I’ve got some tips for ya… They’re probably pretty basic, but they’ve helped me. I learned them in a non-fiction writing class taught by a political speechwriter.

  1. Short sentences. One idea per sentence. Limit your use of commas.
  2. Active rather than passive construction: “The award was won by Billy” isn’t as concise as “Billy won the award.”
  3. Use fewer words. Edit heavily and get your point across in bold, straightforward language.
  4. Avoid jargon, acronyms and flowery language.
  5. Try to write it how you’d say it.
  6. Make lots and lots of notes. A big sheet of paper is your best friend for planning essays.
  7. Try to train yourself to separate ‘creative writing’ from ‘academic writing.’ Two different kettles filled with very different fish.


Sounds like you have a problem with overwriting – folks have given you some good tips so far – let me put my spin on a couple of them.

  1. Go ahead and blah blah out the draft – run a word count – then cut the word count by 10%. You can probably do this easily by cutting out the various qualifiers you’ve thrown in without even realizing it. “Perhaps it can be argued that…” “This seems to indicate that…” “You may want to consider the possibility that…” Out, out, out. Own your thoughts, own your argument – make statements, not suggestions.

  2. Actually read your paper aloud after you’re done – it will help you ID the awkward areas.

  3. Repeat step 1.

  4. The only time to use a thesaurus is when you *know * the word you can think of isn’t precisely the word you want – and you know there’s a word that states your idea more exactly, and you just can’t freaking think of the right word. That’s a legitimate cheat. If you don’t have an immediate “eureka” upon seeing the word you were looking for, don’t use the alternative – at least not without a thorough perusal of the dictionary for the precise meaning of the word you’re considering using. Using a thesaurus to make yourself sound smarter (by using bigger/fancier words) almost always makes you sound dumber (because you don’t realize the nuances of the word you’re using).

twicks, professional editor