10 Simple things to improve your writing

hand writing

The good thing about following a few rules in your writing, even if some of them seem arbitrary or trivial, is that it frees you up to concentrate on what you’re trying to say instead of trying to figure out why something doesn’t sound right or worrying that it’s just plain wrong.

#1: Echoes

Bad practice: Repeated words or phrases set up an echo in the reader’s head or a “Didn’t I just read that?” glitch that can be distracting.


  • Several “but”s or “however”s or “for example”s in one paragraph (or in nearly every paragraph); a series of paragraphs that begin with “Next”
  • A favorite crutch word or phrase used throughout an article (”ensure that,” “as such”, “that said”)

Best practice: Vary the language to avoid annoying or distracting readers with repeated words. Even better, get rid of some of the repeated verbiage, which usually turns out to be overkill anyway.

#2: Nonparallel list items

Bad practice: We often use an inconsistent structure for lists or headings.


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Best practice: Reword where necessary to make the items parallel.

#3: Agreement problems

Bad practice: Sometimes we lose track of what the subject is, and our verb doesn’t match.


  • Neither of the editors are very smart.
  • The dog, as well as the goat and chicken, are easy to parallel park.
  • One-third of the company are color blind.

Best practice: Scrutinize the subject to determine whether it’s singular or plural. It’s not always obvious.

#4: Referring to companies, organizations, etc., as “they”

Bad practice: A company — or any collective group that’s being referred to as a single entity — is often treated as plural, but it shouldn’t be.


  • I wish Wal-Mart would get their pot hole fixed.
  • Microsoft said they’ll look at the problem.

Best practice: Unless there’s some compelling exception, use “it.”

#5: Hyphenating “ly” adverbs

Bad practice: “ly” adverbs never take a hyphen, but they pop up a lot.


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  • Click here for a list or recently-added downloads.

Best practice: Don’t hyphenate ly adverbs. The “ly” says “I modify the word that comes next,” so there’s no need to tie them together with a hyphen.

#6: Using “which” instead of “that”

Bad practice: We sometimes use “which” to set off an essential clause (instead of “that”).


  • The meeting which was scheduled for 1:00 has been cancelled.
  • The option which controls this feature is disabled.

Best practice: The commonly-accepted (haha) convention in American English is to set off a nonessential clause with the word “which” and a comma. One good test is whether the information is extra — not essential to the meaning of the sentence. If the clause is essential, use “that.”

#7: Wordy constructions; deadwood phrases

Nothing is worse for a reader than having to slog through a sea of unnecessary verbiage. Here are a few culprits to watch for in your own writing.

Has the ability to can
At this point in time now
Due to the fact that because
In order to to
In the event that if
Prior to the start of before

#8: Using “that” instead of “who”

Bad practice: Some writers use “that” to refer to people.


  • The bartender that took my money disappeared.
  • The end user that called this morning said he found my money.
  • The folks that attended the training said it was a waste of time.

Best practice: When you’re referring to people, use “who.”

#9: Inconsistent use of the final serial comma

Bad practice: One convention says to use a comma to set off the final item in a series of three or more items; another (equally popular) convention says to leave it out. But some writers bounce between the two rules.


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Best practice: Decide on one convention and stick to it. Those who read what you’ve written will have an easier time following your sentence structure if you’re consistent.

#10: Using a comma to join two dependent clauses

Bad practice: Commas are a great source of controversy and often the victim of misguided personal discretion. But there is this rule: Two dependent clauses don’t need one.


  • I hid the ice cream, and then told my sister where to find it.
  • The user said he saved the file, but somehow deleted it.

Best practice: If the second clause can’t walk away and be its own sentence, don’t set it off with a comma.