March 22, 2015

Skill Series: Writing Suggestions

By: Matt Mitchell

This is the final post in a series on writing. Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.


In addition to the formal rules of writing, there are a lot of practical suggestions, or rules of thumb, that will make your writing sparkle and cohere.

writingOne suggestion is to read. The more you read good authors, the more you will pick up their habits. For this exercise, you should take your time and notice how each word connects with the others. See what you like and what you don’t like and try to learn from it. Bryan Caplan, Thomas Sowell, and Dave Barry are a few of my favorite nonfiction authors. Pick up some something that they have written and study their sentences.

Another trick is to vary the length of your sentences. A long and complicated sentence with many parenthetical clauses and modifiers can be exhausting for the reader. So follow it with a short sentence. It gives the reader a break.

Another suggestion is to express parallel ideas in parallel form. Often, writers mistakenly think that they need to avoid repetition and that they should vary the form of their expressions. But this usually makes the piece harder to follow and less interesting to read. Has government repeatedly intruded on the marketplace? Then when you write about it, repeat some phrase and hit the point home. Consider these phrases:

  • “We were regulated. We were taxed. We were subsidized. We were poked and prodded and cajoled into doing what the politicians wanted us to do.”

In my mind, the phrasing above is significantly more interesting than:

  • “We were regulated. The government taxed us. They also subsidized us. Government poked, prodded and cajoled …”

One of the most common (and commonly ignored) suggestions is to use an “active” voice. What, exactly, does this mean? In short, it means that your verbs should describe the action of the sentence. Consider this sentence:

  • “I authored this piece.”

This is an active sentence. Grammatically, “authored” is the verb. It is also the action you are trying to describe: writing. Now consider this alternative sentence:

  • “The piece was authored by me.”

Most readers will get bored with a piece if it has too many passive sentences, such as the one above.

How can you avoid the passive voice? One way, of course, is to learn how to identify the subject and verb in each sentence (if you haven’t done this since third grade, it can be surprisingly difficult). Make sure the subject of the sentence is performing the verb.

Another, exceedingly simple, trick is to read your work out loud. You will be amazed to find that phrases that seemed just fine in your head are in fact gangly and awkward.

You should also run your work by someone else—preferably someone who can give you honest feedback. If and when they do criticize the piece, don’t take it personally and don’t blame them. If they stumble over a phrase, it is your fault, not theirs.

My final suggestion is to keep your writing simple. Don’t embellish or draw things out. You will just waste the time of your reader and tick them off. And don’t use a $1,000 word when a $1 word will do—besides, studies show that people actually think less of you when you do that (Oppenheimer).

So get to it. Freedom is a wonderful thing to fight for, and if used properly, words can make powerful weapons.


Matt Mitchell is a Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center. This post is an excerpt from the IHS “Creating Your Path to a Policy Career” guide.