3 great writing tips that transform my students

betty ming liu Writing how-to's 19 Comments

I have a ton of writing tips. But for students in a hurry, three essentials always work. Together, they constitute a crash course in cleaning up how they express themselves. If they can get at least these three tools from my classes, then my work is done.

1) Write conversationally

Most students start off in love with long, twisted sentences. They seem to believe that the more they load up on commas, the more intelligent they sound.

squirrelThey also believe that short sentences are too simple.

But the reality is that simple sentences are how we actually talk. Simple sentences are not an act of dumbing down content.

By the way, achieving conversational simplicity is far from simple. Hey, just try creating a paragraph built on short sentences. It requires an extremely sharp mind because each line must logically lead to the next one. There’s no way to hide behind windy words that say blah blah blah.

There’s a powerful tool for organizing conversational writing. The device has an odd name. To learn about the nut graf, click here.


2) Know the difference between using “it” and “they”

Okay, this is a biggie. Getting this right might seem subtle. But knowing how to use “it” versus “they” is an instant game changer…Are you perceived as a talented person with writing potential? Or are you known as a polished writer with a meticulous passion for your craft?


To find the answer, read this:

I love that diner. They serve the best coffee.

Did that look fine to you? If so, ooops! Because this is how it should read:

I love that diner. It serves the best coffee.

To understand the difference between using “it” and “they,” go here.


3) Punctuation defines your writing

People can be very careless with punctuation. After all, it’s just a bunch of dots and squiggles, right? Nope.

Once I explain the importance of commas, periods and dashes, students are quite shocked. Apparently, no one ever told them that punctuation is a marvelous vehicle for self-expression.

Here’s an example. Punctuate the following sentence:

eats shoots leaves

Woman without her man is nothing

It can be tidied up like this:

Woman, without her man, is nothing.

Or maybe you prefer this:

Woman — without her, man is nothing.

Care to read more on this fascinating topic? Here’s the link to my blog post about a terrific, funny book about punctuation. The panda bears are part of the joke.

Comments 19

  1. Betty,

    Simple advice but oh-so-hard for students to learn! In most non-journalism classes, they are rewarded for laden-with -words sentences. Journalism is about getting to the basics of simple, clean writing and you are a master at teaching them how to do that.

    The nut graf example is brilliant!

  2. Who knew your writing tips would become my prevailing passion? I am developing a daily writing practice, both as a student and as an artist seeking to clarify my thoughts about my work. These tips are just what I need. Thank you, Betty!

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    the two marys…thanks for checking in. :)

    i just finished taking the dog on our morning walk. gave me time to think about how the practice is the same in writing and on the canvas. for me, it’s all about stripping down the point to its cleanest, clearest essentials.

    now i want to do that with my daily routine. can i get through the noise and focus on things that really matter?

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    thanks, ivan! you done good in your career.

    oh jenni, thank you for the feedback too. i am thrilled. you must come back when your book is published so that we can cheer you on!

    and laura, i still mess around with the meditation and chimes. last week, i was kinda mean…in one of my classes, i had the students read their work out loud. in their attempts to write simply, some of them kept repeating the same words and phrases over and over.

    so with one poor student, i starting banging on the chimes every time she was repetitive. well, that room was ringing with bells. everyone laughed. she did too. and we all got the point. i actually might try this trick again in this week’s classes.

  5. Betty: I hope you won’t mind if I cut & paste this writing advice into an email to all the writers for Out In Jersey magazine. As an editor, I must say it is excellent counsel !

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    toby, i would love for you to share it! and if they can come back to “like” it or share it themselves via the actual link, that would be great. you know for bloggers, it’s all about readership and direct traffic. thanks! :)

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    amantha! how wonderful that you got “it.” haha! you don’t need to pay me. just take the money to hire a babysitter so that you can go out with your honey. :)

  8. Wonderful tips!! I’m going to send to my Girls Write Now mentee who is writing college admissions essays today. Thanks, Betty!!

  9. Thanks Betty! I’ve heard before about the importance of conversational writing before (only as of this year) lol. But your spin on the punctuation in the second example was new to me, and very helpful!

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  10. Pingback: Checklist: Write better using journalism tricks | betty ming liu

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