How to improve your writing

In the world of policy, good written skills and communication are expected. Nowadays, for many entry level research positions or internships a written assessment is often included in the application process. To avoid falling at the first hurdle read on to see how you can improve your written skills.

Firstly, it’s important to have a good grasp of the basics of spelling, punctuation and grammar (take this from someone who misspelled ‘occurrence’ for twenty years). Despite the invention of spellcheck you still need to have a basic knowledge of grammar to know when something doesn’t quite read correctly. There are multiple websites that will help you with this and often for free. If you feel that more intensive help is needed, you can sign up to one of the many online courses or tutoring sessions on offer to get a good grasp of the elementary particulars. Don’t get too bogged down in the terminology, show me someone who can name all the different forms of the tenses with examples, and I’ll show you a liar. Usually, fluent English speakers can tell by the way a sentence sounds whether it is correct or not. If you struggle with grammar, take some time to read your writing aloud to check for errors.

As with any written work, the importance of planning cannot be overstated. It is essential that you map out your ideas before you write. Imagine your writing as a tent flapping in the breeze. The tent pegs pin it down and make it solid. In the same way, your plan ensures that you hit particular points in your ideas or argument and make your thoughts crystal clear to your reader.

Structuring your work to fit the purpose is also key. What is the purpose of the piece? Are you presenting more than one idea? Are you giving equal time and weight to both sides? Careful planning at the outset and referring back to your plan as you write will help to keep your argument concise and focused.

To add depth and clarity to your writing there are also many tools and techniques you can use. To convince readers to believe and agree with your arguments you need to know your target audience at the outset and keep them in mind as you write. Grabbing their attention at the beginning with a clearly stated main point will draw them in and encourage them to keep reading.

Asking rhetorical questions is another effective way to influence your audience and make your point. Rhetorical questions appeal directly to the reader and can give them time to reflect on their own response which deepens their understanding and keeps them reading. Researching both sides of the argument will also add depth to your writing and enable you to counter any opposing arguments effectively.

Have you tried using Aristotle’s ethos, pathos and logos in your writing? Effective arguments can use all three to convince their reader. Ethos can be seen in balanced and fair writing; logos can underpin your argument with facts and statistics and pathos can be seen in language that draws an emotional response from a reader.

Repetition is another useful tool. Repeating your central point in differing ways underscores your message and makes it familiar and comfortable for your reader.

For policy writing it is also useful to practise how to incorporate facts and data into your analysis without boring your audience to tears. A policy report often grapples with both the macro and the micro, while not distracting from the principal task of conveying a strong message or argument. In your studies or other writings, experiment with introducing new information and facts in a way that enhances not clutters your overall argument.

Next on the list is the ability to be succinct. There is no easier way to lose a reader then to take too long to get to the point. The message of your piece should be evident in all that you write. This all comes back to its purpose. If you bear this message in mind and include only relevant information, the dangers of veering off course are minimised. Aim for a mix of longer and shorter sentences to keep an appealing rhythm and speed to your work.

In the policy world of research writing, academic integrity is paramount. If you are writing for a specific organisation, be sure to familiarise yourself with their referencing policy. From MLA to APA citation styles and everything else in between there are websites available to explain and, in some cases, create your references for you. Take advantage of these to ensure your work is clearly and accurately referenced.

With any piece of writing, it is only as good as its editing. As talented a thinker as you may be, nobody’s first thoughts are perfect. You need to ensure that you are crafting first, second and final drafts that allow you to fully showcase your thinking and originality. A fresh pair of eyes is always useful, so send your drafts to people who will cast a critical eye and ask for their (honest) opinion. They are much better at spotting mistakes in a document that you may have been staring at for hours.

Above all, the most valuable thing you can do to improve your writing is to read. If you are keen to work in think tanks and policy, take some time to look at different policy reports to get a feel for how other researchers construct and disseminate their research. There is no better way to familiarise yourself with the style of writing you will need than reading work that has been edited and published by the organisations you wish to work for. This has the added bonus of doubling up as interview prep so when you are asked what policy area you are particularly interested in, you can confidently answer.

A good writing style will help you perform better in written assessments as well as making the transition into a policy role or organisation easier. Take every opportunity to develop these skills. This can include your academic studies but also extracurricular activities such as writing for your student paper, setting up your own blog or creating content for social media.

Once you have practised and perfected the basics you can start to craft your own distinct writing style and let your originality shine through. Your writing style will develop as you continue to write in your studies and as you start your career. But if you have a strong foundation, you are well on the way to being able to sell those communication skills to future employers.

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