How to Get Better at Writing: The Basics
The following experts contributed to our guide:
No matter what kind of degree or training program you’re in, you need to be able to write well. It’s more obvious that an undergrad in English literature needs to be able to write, but it may come as a surprise to some that even nursing or economics students will need to demonstrate proficiency in written communication during their education and beyond.
If writing assignments from high school always made you cringe or question your writing skills, know that it doesn’t have to be this way. Thankfully, there are many resources to help you improve your writing, better understand grammar and syntax rules, and craft sentences you can be proud of—including this guide!
On Your Way to Becoming a Better Writer
Improving your writing skills takes time, patience, and practice. Breaking down writing assignments into different “chunks” can often make the process feel less overwhelming.
Before You Begin Writing…
Understand the goal of the assignment.
In addition to restraints such as word or page count, teachers generally assign a purpose: to persuade, inform, etc. For instance, in healthcare education, many writing assignments are likely to be informative and research-based—though other types are not unheard of. Fully grasping the purpose of your assignment should be a top priority. Do you want to educate the reader on a particular topic? Cause them to think differently about something they may feel they already understand? As you write your paper, always keep the purpose in mind. “The #1 issue I see in failed essays is the student doesn’t accomplish the goals (in paper style, purpose, constraints, etc.),” notes Martha Warner, who teaches writing at Indiana University. Learn about different types of papers below.
Define your audience.
The people for whom you’re writing determine the style and intensity of your writing. Writing pieces intended to inform patients, for instance, will look very different from writing for educated medical professionals. “Audience impacts every aspect of what and how you write,” says Warner. “It’s important to know as much information as possible about your audience: demographics, interests, habits, relationship to the topic, etc.” If you’re unclear about your audience, ask your professor.
Define your subject.
Sometimes, you’ll be given a clear topic to write about, such as a particular medical issue. Other times, you may be given a more open-ended assignment, like writing about your motivation for entering your intended career field. When you get to choose your topic, make sure it’s not such an obscure subject that research will be difficult but also isn’t so broad that your paper will lack focus—or exceed the assignment’s word count. You can almost always run your idea by your teacher before digging in.
Thanks to the Internet, researching is easier than ever before. However, ensure your sources are valid and unbiased—for instance, newspapers are often more valid than personal blogs, and many teachers still don’t allow Wikipedia as a source. (Don’t forget, though: Wikipedia articles often link to excellent sources at the bottom.) For some topics, particularly those that are more academic, you may need to venture beyond the computer. Your local or school library has a wealth of resources, and you can often order additional materials if you need them. Regardless of where you find your information, be sure you have the most recent data and study results—medicine changes quickly!
While You Are Writing…
Start by writing a thesis statement.
A thesis is the main idea of the entire essay. It tells the audience exactly what they’ll be reading about. Writing the thesis statement before you begin your outline will help guide you.
Create an outline.
Creating an outline can help you define the various sections of your paper, keep you on track, and ensure you touch on all the important details throughout the piece. As you find sources, insert them—even just links—into your outline so you don’t have to try to locate them later. Learn how to create an outline below.
Keep your audience and goal in mind.
Don’t forget why you’re writing and who you hope to reach. Make sure your outline aligns with these goals.
Writing a Thesis Statement
After You Finish Writing…
After you’ve written your first draft, there are a few things you should do before declaring the work complete.
Double-check all citations.
Improperly citing a source can call your findings or the rigor of your work into question. Therefore, it is vital to carefully check each one for accuracy and formatting. Learn how to cite sources below.
Proofreading can save you from embarrassing mistakes. Consider using a service like Grammarly, but you should also read through the paper with your own eyes. Sometimes reading out loud can help you catch additional mistakes. Learn tips for proofreading below.
Have someone else look at your paper.
It’s difficult to assess a paper that you have been immersed in for hours or days. Having someone else look at your paper objectively can provide you with valuable feedback on content, grammar, and flow.
If you’re in a hard sciences, social sciences, or healthcare-related program, most of your papers will probably fall into the research/expository category. Writing an expository paper calls on students to take a comprehensive look at an idea or theory through research and investigation. These papers may use tools such as comparing and contrasting, analyzing cause and effect, or providing and extrapolating on examples.
Expository papers should start with a clear thesis statement about what the paper will accomplish. Each subsequent paragraph needs to offer evidence and support for that thesis and move the idea forward. The final paragraph should summarize how the proof you’ve provided supports your thesis.
Literary Devices offers examples of several expository essays.
As the name suggests, persuasive/argumentative essays argue for or against a specific idea. For example, in healthcare coursework, you may find yourself writing this kind of essay about topics like equity in healthcare, treatment of healthcare workers, or how to best hard conversations with patients or families. Writers can also review counterarguments and explain why those are inaccurate or less valid by using facts and research to support their conclusions.
When writing an argumentative essay, students need to ensure their topic merits debate. A niche topic with few differing opinions or beliefs likely isn’t best for this type of paper. Shorter argumentative essays typically take the standard five-paragraph structure. In contrast, longer ones may include more contextual (relating to the world around the topic) and tangential (seemingly off-topic, but ultimately relevant) information.
Mesa Community College provides several sample argumentative essays.
Descriptive papers allow writers to bring the reader into their worlds with a thorough description of an idea, event, or experience. These papers are typically more personal in nature and allow the writer to express feelings rather than strictly facts or arguments. Some descriptive papers may also include dialogue; however, dialogue should not dominate the piece, as this type of paper is not a work of fiction or a script for plays. You may write this kind of paper about your fieldwork experience or particular patient interactions, for instance.
Descriptive papers may use literary devices that aren’t acceptable in other types of papers, such as sensory information or descriptions of physical movement through a space.
The Indiana University of Pennsylvania provides several examples of descriptive papers via the Kathleen Jones White Writing Center.
Some professors like to use essay-based exams to see whether students are keeping up with readings and understanding course material. While less polished than formal essays, students still need to be able to demonstrate that they understand concepts, can make connections, justify evaluations, argue opinions, and analyze evidence. They also need to be organized and well written.
Instructors often ask students to do this type of paper during a class period. To do well on an essay-based exam, you must keep up with the required reading and complete assignments. Make an outline before you start writing the essay to help keep you on track and try to save time for a quick proofread.
The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill provides examples of in-class essays.
To gain entrance to educational programs or earn scholarships, you’ll often be required to submit a statement as part of your application. Many jobs require this as well. Personal statements should be formal but also welcoming—they’re the best way for reviewers to get to know the real you. These statements can discuss the challenges you’ve faced and how you overcame them, your goals for the future, and examples of how you spend your time outside of work and school. Some personal statement requests may provide a specific prompt; if this is the case, stick closely to the requested information.
Johns Hopkins University provides examples of personal essays that got students admitted to the school.
Narratives are similar to descriptive papers but possess some key differences. While descriptive papers often simply describe a situation or moment, narrative works have plots. They often use first-person pronouns to bring the writer into the story and make them part of the action. You aren’t likely to write many of these as part of your training in most fields, but you may be asked to write about an imaginary-but-possible situation you could find yourself in during your career or while taking a general education class.
Narrative essays are typically written in chronological order and help the reader feel immersed in the experience of the characters. They take substantial planning to ensure the story moves at the right pace and keeps the reader’s attention throughout.
You can find several narrative essay examples at the Western Technical College website.
Some professors, especially those teaching writing-heavy courses, require students to create a writing portfolio to show the progress they have made. Components of portfolios vary, but most require students to assemble a specified number of pieces of work and write reflective statements about their writing and how they feel they have progressed.
Many students in school are also in jobs where you need to write for business communication, which can include emails, formal letters, or memos. These might be for an internship, part-time job, or research assistantship. Even if you don’t think of these as business communications, you might also need to correspond with professors or staff at your school about tuition, class requirements and deadlines, or other matters. Business writing is concise and to-the-point, with a professional tone.
Outlines may feel like an extra step that keeps you from starting to write, but they can be an immense help when it comes to staying on track and motivated. There are two primary types of outlines: “topic” and “sentence,” also known as “formal” and “informal.” Topic outlines contain words or phrases instead of sentences that are organized in layered tiers and hit on the main points of the paper. Sentence outlines, conversely, include the thesis statement and, for each subsequent paragraph, a topic sentence. These somewhat function as a rough first draft. Writing teachers often specify the type of outline they require.
The University of California-Berkley provides examples of each type of outline.
Good outlines are structured according to patterns. Types of patterns include:
- Compare and contrast
- Advantages and disadvantages/pros vs. cons
- Cause and effect
- Problem and solution
A sequential structure, for example, arranges information in “steps” to indicate a specific order. A cause-effect outline may be organized so that the cause is the first main point, and the effect is the second.
The University of Washington provides examples of outlines that are organized by different patterns.
Citations can seem tedious at times but are among the most important components of your writing, as they show where your information came from and validate your findings. They also help you avoid inadvertent plagiarism.
There are two types of citations: in-text and bibliography. Writing professor Martha Warner explains the differences:
“In-text citations are the formal indicators in the text of an essay that show what information comes from another source. The in-text citation usually includes the name of the author, the title of the piece, and often a year of publication. Better in-text citations will include some of the qualifications of the author or some information about the publication. While those (qualifications) are not formal requirements, the in-text citation is one necessary way to avoid plagiarizing from someone else.
“That in-text citation leads to the bibliographic citation that is at the end of an essay. The bibliographic citation is a more specific roadmap to a source. Often, the bibliographic citations will have a URL so readers can investigate a source themselves.
“Both in-text citations and bibliographic citations are used with essays that have external sources used (research). The exact format of these structures varies based on the specific style of writing used: APA and MLA are most often used, but Chicago and AP are also used in many subjects. They are all styles of citing—not specific paper purposes. Think of APA as a formal date; MLA is a more casual date; Chicago is a long-distance date; and AP is a speed-date. They all have their purpose and place that depend on the circumstances. How you dress them up also depends on the year, as most of the citations styles are changed every four to six years.”
It’s important to note that each citation style has guidelines depending on the type of document you plan to source. Books, for instance, will be cited differently than a website. Below are MLA-style citations; you can find links to other style guides below.
For this, assume you used a book called Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep. The book was published in New York City by the publishing company Knopf in 2019.
Cep, Casey. Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee. New York: Knopf, 2019.
Article in a Newspaper
Assume you used an article from a physical newspaper (not an online version) called “United States Health Care Reform: Progress to Date and Next Steps,” written by Barack Obama. It was published by the Washington Post on May 21, 2020 and appeared on page A5.
Obama, Barack. “United States Health Care Reform: Progress to Date and Next Steps.” Washington Post, 21 May 2020, p. A5
Assume you are citing an online article called “How Sardinian Weaving Nearly Became a Lost Art.” It was published online via The New York Times Style Magazine on September 13, 2018 and was written by Deborah Needleman. You read this article on January 23, 2020.
The website and article title can be listed in sentence form. If there is an author, use parentheses. For example:
“How Sardinian Weaving Nearly Became a Lost Art” from The New York Times Style Magazine provides information about types of weaving (Needleman).
Alternatively, you could choose to provide all the information in the sentence:
In Deborah Needleman’s The New York Times Style Magazine article “How Sardinian Weaving Nearly Became a Lost Art,” you can find information about types of weaving.
Needleman, Deborah. “How Sardinian Weaving Nearly Became a Lost Art.” The New York Times
Style Magazine, 13 Sept. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/13/t-magazine/sardinian-weaving-woven-textiles.html. Accessed 23 Jan. 2020.
Note: Be sure to remove the hyperlink that will often automatically appear, including the underline and the color. This is true for any style you use.
Unfortunately, style guides are not free—for the full scoop, you need to purchase them from the publisher, your college bookstore, or a similar source. However, you can find basic citation information at the Purdue Online Writing Lab:
If keeping up with the various rules of different citation styles seems overwhelming, you’re not alone in that feeling. Fortunately, there are several citation tools where you can enter the relevant information (title, author, publication date, publisher, etc.), and the program will create the citation for you. Some great resources include:
If you opt to use one of these resources, be sure to double-check the work before submitting your paper. For instance, when you copy the citation into your bibliography, it may create hyperlinks or not indent appropriately.
After putting hours of research and writing into your piece, the last thing you want to do is turn it in with errors. When possible, build in break time between writing and proofreading, as you’re much more likely to catch mistakes with fresh eyes.
Plenty of apps and tools exist to help you avoid mistakes. For instance, ProWritingAid and Grammarly function as grammar checkers and style editors, with both free and paid options. If your school has a writing center, you can get someone to read over your work if you provide them with ample time. It’s also worth asking a roommate or friend to look over the document, as they may be able to catch syntax or structural issues you may not be able to see.
After copyediting your paper and ensuring all citations are correct, set aside time to carefully spellcheck. While MS Word and Google Docs can catch blatant misspellings, neither can always catch on homophones or other misuses of correctly spelled words. If you’re not sure if you used the correct spelling or word, look it up via a search engine, using terms like “accept vs. except” or “among vs. between.” Then, try reading the piece out loud to catch other mistakes.
Common Writing Pitfalls/Mistakes
You can’t expect to become a master writer overnight, but there are common mistakes and pitfalls that, when avoided, can quickly improve your writing. We look at a few common errors below.
According to Warner, using punctuation incorrectly is probably the most common error students make—in particular, not using the correct punctuation to separate sentences. Understanding how and when to use common punctuation such as commas, colons, semicolons, hyphens, em-dashes, and periods can do a great deal to improve your writing. If you aren’t sure how to use these, review some of the resources we highlight at the end of this guide.
Problems With Subject-Verb Agreement
Watch that your verb “agrees with” your subject. In short, if your subject is plural, your verb should be plural; if your subject is singular, your verb should be singular. Here are some examples:
For more examples, see the Purdue Online Writing Lab.
Incorrect Word Usage
“Their” vs. “there” vs. “they’re,” “your” vs. “you’re,” “too vs. “to” vs. “two”—these are all examples of words that can easily be misused. Understanding the meaning of each can go a long way. When thinking about “your” vs. “you’re,” for example, simply consider whether the word “are” is needed for the sentence to make sense. Example: “Your shoe is untied.” If you add the word “are” to this sentence (“You are shoe is untied”), it doesn’t make sense. Therefore, “your” is the correct choice in this case.
Lack of Parallelism
According to Northern Illinois University, “Parallelism is the matching of the forms of words, phrases, or clauses within a sentence.” It makes your writing balanced and easier to understand and is key in good writing.
Forgetting About the Reader
Remember both who you’re writing for and why they’re reading your piece. If you’re writing about the results of a recent study you performed for an audience of medical professionals, you can use higher-level medical terminology and keep your focus strictly on the study. If you’re writing for the general public about that study, use language they’ll understand and, while the focus should be on the work and its results, you can throw in anecdotes to help clarify points. Always remember what your goal is, whether that be to educate, inform, challenge, entertain, or something else.
There are many resources to help you learn the rules of grammar, develop strong papers, and ultimately become a better writer. Here are some of the more well-known options.
Purdue University OWL
Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) is unparalleled when it comes to providing excellent resources around writing styles, citations, and all things concerning papers and essays.
University of Pittsburg
Pitt offers a comprehensive collection of information on fact-checking, citation styles, and other writing topics.
Learners can find several valuable online resources and handouts on the art of writing.
Tools and Apps
Worried that your sentences may be too lengthy, your language may be too complicated or too simple, or your main point is getting lost in the weeds? Hemingway can help.
Ginger Grammar Checker
This free service makes it possible for you to avoid incorrect grammar with an easy click.
This free tool allows you to quickly perform a plagiarism check to ensure you aren’t using someone else’s words.
Writing Style Guides
Types of Writing
The University of Toledo provides details and several helpful resources on writing this type of paper.
Argumentative Essay Samples
Use these samples provided by Skyline College to see how to write a great argumentative paper.
Introductions, Body Paragraphs, and Conclusions for Argument Paper
Purdue’s OWL offers a comprehensive resource on structuring and crafting an argument paper.
Expository Essay Help
The Tutoring and Testing Center at Nova Southeastern University offers this resource.
Writing an Expository Essay
Cambridge University Press put together an all-inclusive guide on this type of paper.
What is an Expository Essay?
Purdue’s OWL answers this question and more.
Writing a Descriptive Essay
Use this tip sheet from Butte College for some expert advice on descriptive papers.
How to Write a Descriptive Essay
The University of Texas at El Paso offers this helpful resource.
What is a Descriptive Essay?
Learn more from Purdue’s OWL on how to bring topics alive with a descriptive paper.
Narrative Essay Handout
Miami University’s Howe Center for Writing Excellence put together this helpful resource.
Characteristics of a Narrative Essay
Nova Southeastern University breaks down the different components of these pieces.
What is a Narrative Essay?
You can learn more about this style of writing via Purdue’s OWL.
Tips for Writing Essay Exams
The University of Washington offers concrete advice for acing these tests.
Taking an Essay Exam
Indiana University Bloomington’s Writing Tutorial Service looks at how to prepare for an essay exam.
Writing Essays for Exams
Purdue’s OWL observes what a well-written answer to an essay question comprises.
Writing the Personal Statement
Berkeley University’s Graduate Center offers this step-by-step guide to writing personal statements.
Personal Statement: 10 Rules and Pitfalls
Beware of these issues highlighted by Purdue’s OWL.
Blogs About Writing
APA Style Blog
This regularly-updated, official blog gives tips on improving your APA citation know-how.
Named one of Writer’s Digest’s 101 best websites for writers, this website can help quickly answer lingering style and grammar questions.
In addition to providing proofreading services, Grammarly also publishes frequent blog posts.
Confessions from a Professional Writer: Lynn Burke
What do you think is the most difficult part of writing?
Just like getting ready to tackle an overflowing closet that needs cleaning, getting started with your writing project can often feel overwhelming, even paralyzing. But I often find that once I do a bit of a pre-writing, whether that takes the form of a formal outline or some quick notes on a post-it, I can then start on the task at hand. And once I’ve started, the fear of the blank page disappears the way the mess in the closet does—slowly at first, and then all at once!
What do you like best about writing?
Shutting the rest of the world out and transferring my thoughts to the page can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Establishing my own rhythm when writing makes time fly by—there’s nothing better than losing myself while being simultaneously productive. It’s like binging on Netflix but with no associated guilt! Something else I love about writing is the discovery of insight that I didn’t realize I had until I started typing. As an English teacher, I often tell my students that writing is not only a way to communicate with your audience but is also an important means of communicating with yourself.
What do you wish you’d learned in school that would have helped you with your writing career?
I wish someone told me to read my writing out loud before I submitted it, whether that means turning a piece in to a professor or a newspaper editor. When you read your own work silently, you are usually too close to your own words to catch mechanical errors and awkward phrasing. After all, you’re the one who wrote the piece! But when you read your work out loud, those mistakes reveal themselves loudly and clearly. The practice may make you cringe at first, but this simple method is the best way to edit yourself. Now my children often hear me talking to myself in my home office, and they don’t even notice anymore. It becomes a habit if you do it often enough.
Did you think you were a good writer in school? Did you want to be a writer then?
In college, I think I worried too much about sounding like a good writer to actually be one. I often got in my own way by attempting to write in a manner that I imagined sounded academic. And I see my own students do this today by choosing a longer, more complicated word when often a simpler one will do. Step away from the thesaurus, I tell them. After all, writing is a lot like meeting someone at a party: try too hard to sound smart, and your audience’s eyes will start to glaze over. The best way not to lose your reader is to be yourself and not “talk” too much without saying anything! Make every word count.
I didn’t realize I wanted to be a writer until after graduation when I worked as a paralegal in a law firm and then as an assistant at a marketing company. I realized the parts of those jobs I liked best involved writing. By then, I had developed a little more confidence and understood the value in clear, effective communication. In other words, I stopped trying to sound smart and learned to focus on sounding like myself instead.
What would you tell a student who is convinced they are lousy writers? What advice would you give them?
No one is born writing well. Effective writing is very much a learned skill and one that can always be improved. There is no such thing as a “bad writer.” If you haven’t yet received positive feedback on your writing, know that are concrete steps you can take. Students should take advantage of the free writing centers offered at many colleges. And there are also free online writing centers out there with a host of resources. Purdue University operates an excellent one. Students can also learn a great deal by peer editing for each other. By examining the strengths and weaknesses of a classmate’s essay, for example, a peer editor can learn how to re-examine his or her own writing. Above all, don’t fall into the trap of labeling yourself as a “bad writer.” The bottom line is that writing is a skill and you will get better with practice.
Do you have any “top tips” to give students?
- Read professional writers. They can be sports writers, political essayists, columnists, food bloggers, or novelists. Read whatever interests you and take active note of what makes the writing especially effective. This is a much more interesting way to refresh your memory about those old lessons from high school English class on active voice, sensory details, and vivid verbs.
- Avoid clichés like the plague! (See what I did there?) If any part of your sentence sounds as if someone else could have written it, that’s a signal to omit it. Overused phrases effectively dilute your voice from your writing and suggest that you didn’t want to do the heavy lifting original thought requires. No matter what you’re writing, that’s not the impression you want to make.
- Embrace constructive criticism. Be grateful for feedback, especially the non-glowing kind. If you are told your essay contains too many generalizations, that’s a mistake you can fix by providing more specific examples to back up your claims. If your work tends to suffer from awkward sentence structure, grab a copy of Strunk & White’s classic The Elements of Style and commit it to memory. My journalism professor used this as his only “textbook” in my first graduate class, and I still have a copy on my desk. Adopt a growth mindset when it comes to writing and not only will you improve, but you may come to even enjoy the process.
Meet the Expert
Martha Warner is a writer, editor, and educator and owner of Martha Warner, LLC. In addition to ghost, grant, content, and copywriting and editing, Martha teaches at Indiana University as well as other online and in-person courses, including Writing to Make Money, College Scholarship Writing, and Write that Grant.