How to improve your grammar and writing

How to improve your grammar and writing
(Image credit: Future)

Many people wish their writing was better than it is. Learning how to improve your grammar, spelling, and sentence composition can make huge improvements to all areas of writing - from basic emails and messages, all the way through to academic papers and job applications. Sure, picking one of the best online grammar checkers is a great start, as they will catch many of the more complex errors missed by the basic spelling and grammar editors built into Microsoft Word and Google Docs, but how else can you enhance your writing and editing to seriously impress your recipient?

For one thing, we'd recommend making sure you have the right tool for the job. Word processors are fine for most tasks, but if you're looking into something specialized like writing for TV or the stage, then the best screenwriting software is essential.

Writers will tell you the best way to improve actual writing is to do a lot of it – write every day if you can. However, you can become a skilled writer and still lack editing skills. If you are showing manuscripts to publishers or agents, or just submitting an college paper or job application, it’s always good to have another set of eyes look at your work before you submit it. That's not always practical, however, and there are tricks you can do yourself to catch errors that might otherwise slip through.

Improving grammar

Karina Fabian, an award-winning author, shared with us the five-step program she uses to minimize the number of errors in her own work:

  1. Spell and grammar check.
  2. Change the font type and size and then reread it for errors. They will pop out.
  3. Print it and read it out loud. You will find tangled sentences, repeated words and phrases, and confusing parts because these things slow down your reading.
  4. Print it and read it backward, one sentence at a time. You will find an amazing number of errors because your mind is not moving with the flow of the narrative and filling in blanks for you.
  5. Run it back through spellcheck after fixing the errors to make sure you didn’t add some.

A grammar check program can help you catch embarrassing errors, and when you pay attention to the reports you receive from a program like Grammarly, it can also help you catch them yourself. But that can only go so far in helping you improve your grammar skills generally. The writers and copy editors we spoke to had some ideas of ways you can improve your grammar skills.   

Karie Anderson, a copy editor we talked to, feels that for the average person trying to improve writing skills, one of the best things you can do is analyze what you read. "When I read for fun, I'll look at the punctuation in the book: How did the editor punctuate this sentence? Why did they put a comma here? Or I'll kind of test myself when reading a book." She also suggests reading books specifically on style and grammar, like Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Mary Norris.  

Between You and Me, by Mary Norris

(Image credit: Mary Norris)

Anderson said the best way for the average person to improve grammar and sentence structure is to do a lot of reading and pay close attention as you read. She said exposure to all types of reading materials; whether it’s recreational reading like fiction or you’re reading something relevant to your industry, you can get a sense of style and grammar rules. If you're looking for more help, a program like ProWritingAid is good for structure and sentence flow too.

Karina Fabian said that for a person who already knows the rules of grammar, the most important thing is to pay close attention to what they have written. "Personally, I’ve found my own grammar skills have gone way downhill as I’ve gotten older, and that is in part due to the fact that I am doing so much quick, casual writing," she said. "I have fallen out of good habits thanks to social media and software that automatically corrects common errors." Slowing down and really reading what you’ve written will go a long way in helping to catch common errors, Fabian feels.

Making your writing better

Karina Fabian has published more than a dozen books, and her advice for new writers is: “Write, submit, accept that rejections come, learn from them, write some more. Repeat.”

Fabian said if you self-publish, you should do yourself and your readers a favor and hire an editor. Grammar check programs are a good place to start when it comes to catching errors and fixing minor problems with the writing, like sentence structure, but they will only catch so much. If you're serious about getting published, you need to invest in that dream, which means going beyond software.

Fabian feels there is way too much badly written self-published content out there. Good or even great self-published work, like The Martian by Andy Weir, is well edited and had many sets of eyes look at it before publication. "You need outside eyes," Fabian said. "Take the craft seriously if you want to publish. Otherwise, just write for fun on one of the fan-fic type sites, or on a blog."

Fabian said her books go through a crit group, which is a friendly peer critique group, and beta readers before going to a publisher, who then sends them to an editor and a copy editor. That's a long process, but having all these eyes looking at your work is very helpful. However, Fabian has found that new errors are often introduced during this extensive editing process, so it’s important to re-read edits that come back to you. 

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