20 English Writing Rules and Tips to Instantly Improve Your Writing
English writing skills are super important for learners.
Whether you need to pass a test, complete an assignment or write an email to a co-worker, knowing how to say what you want to say in print is vital.
Read on to discover 20 English writing rules and tips to help you succeed, no matter what your goal is.
- 20 English Writing Rules and Tips to Instantly Improve Your Writing
- Useful English Writing Tips to Follow
- Important English Writing Rules to Master
20 English Writing Rules and Tips to Instantly Improve Your Writing
Richard Bach once said: “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”
That is exactly how I used to feel. An amateur at writing in English.
But time, practice and a good set of tools helped me get better at it, and even get a job as a writer.
Read the following list carefully and take some time to practice each section, first separately and then together with the rest.
You are going to be surprised at how much you can improve your English writing skills very quickly!
Useful English Writing Tips to Follow
Watch out for homonyms
Homonyms are words that sound or are spelled identically but have different meanings.
Take the word spring, for example. You may already know this is the name of one of the seasons, but did you know this word can also mean a piece of coiled (twisted) metal? FluentU will clarify that for you:
If you’re curious about the screenshots above, FluentU is a language learning program that teaches English using authentic videos with learner tools like interactive subtitles and personalized quizzes. Besides comparing words, you can also watch videos on FluentU to see how homonyms and synonyms are used by native speakers.
Getting to know the most common English homonyms and how they are used will have a huge positive impact (influence, effect) on your writing.
Teachers pay special attention to this, and they will lower your mark if you use the wrong words.
Many words in this sentence are confusing homonyms:
I sea you new that cereal killer, two.
Here is the same sentence, written correctly:
I see you knew that serial killer, too.
Sometimes, we need five words to reach that 200-word lowest limit, and sometimes you need to write a 1,200-word article and end up with six thousand words.
Neither option is good.
Try to be specific and write exactly what you need to write.
Especially at the beginning, choose one topic—and only one—and don’t add information that is not necessary or off-topic (not related to the topic).
If you see three or more sentences in a paragraph are not necessary, start writing that paragraph from scratch (from the beginning) again.
This is grammatically correct but very difficult to follow:
Writing is important to improve your English. My friend loves writing. He also reads and teaches little kids. Writing can help you become a better speaker of English, too.
Here’s a better option:
Practicing your writing skills will improve all your English language skills. I know that because my friend, who teaches little kids, told me.
Avoid long sentences
I am the first who needs to apply this sometimes because I often use a lot of subordinate clauses in my writing.
A way to get better at longer sentences is by starting small.
With time, you will learn how to use English connectors like a professional writer, and you will learn to see the difference between a long sentence and a very-and-unnecessarily-long sentence.
The opposite is also true, though! Avoid using too many short sentences together. This makes your writing sound choppy (uneven and not smooth).
This sentence is grammatically correct, but it can give you a headache:
Writing is an art that you, my dear reader, should master if you really want to convey your message properly and make the reader feel that what you have to say is not only interesting but also necessary for them to read and analyze during the process of reading it.
This sentence is a much better option:
Writing is an art you should master if you want to communicate properly. Your goal is to make the reader interested in what you write and give them something to think about.
Don’t use words you don’t know the meaning of
This tip is quite self-explanatory (it explains itself, it is obvious).
If you don’t know the meaning of a word or expression, make sure you really know what it means before you use it.
Trying to pretend you are a walking dictionary does not always give you good results, especially if you make a mistake and use a word incorrectly or spell it incorrectly.
Two words in this sentence are incorrect:
Irregardless of whether you like it or not, the book entitled “Alice in Wonderland” is a classic.
You might think the previous sentence sounds “smarter,” but entitled means “to believe that you have the right to something.” It does not mean “having the title.” And irregardless is not even a word!
You can rewrite that sentence like this, instead:
Whether you like it or not, the book titled “Alice in Wonderland” is a classic.
Be careful of false friends
False friends are words that seem to mean one thing but mean something totally different.
Depending on your native language, some words can be false friends for you or not.
One of the most famous cases of this is the spanish word embarazada, which sounds like it means “embarrassed” but really means “pregnant.”
Have a look at some examples. Here is the Spanish example I mentioned above:
Mary is embarrassed. (What you may say.)
Mary is pregnant. (What you wanted to say.)
Here’s an example from Polish:
He works in a fabric. (What you may say. This is also a Spanish false friend!)
He works in a factory. (What you wanted to say.)
Finally, let’s see a French example:
I love this pain! (You may, but I am sure you wanted to say the next sentence.)
I love this bread!
Remember the five W’s
The five W’s are the main question words in English: What, where, when, who and why. Although it does not start with W, you can also include how in this list!
If you are writing an assignment, try to answer at least a few of these five questions, unless the topic is so specific that it would not make sense to do it.
For example, you do not need to answer all five of them if you are describing your best friend or talking about the weather, but you can if you are describing your last holidays.
This example is okay, but it sounds odd because it includes too many unimportant details:
My dog’s name is Kira. She was born in 2016 in Poland. She was born because their parents had puppies.
In this example, all five W’s are answered because they add important information:
Last year I went to France on holiday because I wanted to visit the Eiffel Tower. I spend the whole month of July there with my girlfriend, and we bought a lot of presents for our friends.
Avoid overusing the to be verbs
To be is obviously a very important and necessary English verb. It allows us to make descriptions, talk about age, occupations, relationships, etc.
However, sometimes we use it a bit too much, especially when we start writing in English.
There are several tricks you can use to reduce the number of unnecessary to be verbs in your writing. The most common one is making the person or thing doing the action the subject of the sentence.
This one is correct but it can be improved:
She is very pretty. She is a nurse devoted to her patients.
This is a much better option:
The pretty nurse devotes herself to her patients.
If you write a sentence that can be interpreted in two or more different ways, or it is not clear what it is referring to, it is an ambiguous sentence.
You should try to avoid ambiguity so that the person reading what you write has a clear understanding of your writing.
There are many ways in which you can avoid being ambiguous, but one of the easiest ones is just to make sure the pronouns you use are clear in the context.
In the following sentence, it is difficult to tell who was a good student, Mary or Sue:
Mary told Sue that she was a good student.
This next sentence makes it much clearer that Mary is the good student:
Mary described herself to Sue as a good student.
Revise what you have written… twice!
This tip might be obvious for many of you.
When you finish writing, you have to revise your work and look for spelling, grammar and vocabulary errors.
Check whether sentences are too long or too short or if there is any ambiguity in the text that can be easily solved. Look for false friends, homonyms and any other word you may have used incorrectly.
Take a break and give it a final second reading before sending/printing/handing in your work.
Here is what a sentence might look like before proofreading:
In conclusion, thre are thre ways too fry an egg.
Here is a much cleaner sentence, after editing out the mistakes:
In conclusion, there are three ways to fry an egg.
Important English Writing Rules to Master
It is nice to have a list of tips regarding general things you have to have in mind while writing.
However, mastering a few basic grammar rules is equally important.
Learn the following English grammar rules and you will get a solid foundation upon which you can start building your writing skills and become the next Shakespeare.
English capitalization rules
This may sound silly, but capitalization is actually important!
You would not write your name as mary or john, but Mary or John.
It is just as important to write Sunday and not sunday, and to use a capital letter after a period.
There are some capitalization errors in this sentence:
i will go to the beach on monday. do you want to come?
This is the correct version:
I will go to the beach on Monday. Do you want to come?
English punctuation rules
You do not need to know everything about English punctuation from the very beginning, but you should at least master the use of commas and periods early on.
Periods can be tricky—basically, you end a sentence with them—but commas are definitely trickier.
When do I have to use them? Should I put one here or not?
There are many reasons to use a comma but one basic rule is that commas are used when you would naturally pause in your sentence. For example, you would write: First, learn English punctuation rules.
There is also a special kind of comma called the Oxford comma.
This comma appears before the last item in a series of three or more items.
If you follow the AP style, you will not use it, whereas (while, but) if you follow any other writing style like the Chicago style, you will.
In this example, there are no commas, so you would run out of breath by the end! It also never finishes since there is no punctuation mark at the end:
First I went shopping then I was getting tired so I decided to go home It was an adventure
The following sentence is much easier to follow thanks to the punctuation marks:
First, I went shopping. Then, I was getting tired so I decided to go home. It was an adventure!
Here’s an example using the Oxford comma (Chicago style):
I need two pens, three notebooks, and one pencil.
And here’s one without the comma (AP style):
I need two pens, three notebooks and one pencil.
Tenses allow us to communicate our ideas properly.
Learning and mastering English tenses is one of the first steps in our language learning journey.
This is not random (by chance). Tenses are at the core of English grammar and without them, we would not be able to distinguish the past, the present and the future.
When you write, pay special attention to the tenses you use and make sure your choices are correct in the context.
This may be an example of the historical present, but it sounds weird since 1907 already passed:
He dies in 1907.
This sentence sounds more natural:
He died in 1907.
Subject-verb agreement is a rule that says that the subject and the verb of a sentence always have to agree. That is, they have to be in the same person and number.
You cannot use the third person plays if the subject is you, just as you can’t use have been when the subject is my mom.
These two sentences are incorrect:
The price of books are on the rise.
Mary go to school every day.
While these are correct:
The price of books is on the rise. (“Price” is the subject.)
Mary goes to school every day. (“Mary” is the subject.)
Order of adjectives and adverbs
Adjectives can be a nightmare for some learners of English, especially when they have to use more than one category of them in the same sentence.
While it is important to know the order of adjectives, the very first rule you need to learn and remember is that, in English, adjectives come before the noun.
This sentence would sound very wrong to a native English speaker:
I have bought a car white.
This sentence is correct:
I have bought a white car.
This also applies when you have several adjectives in the sentence. For example, here is an incorrect sentence:
I bought a kitchen table beautiful long and wooden last week.
And here it is, corrected:
I bought a beautiful long wooden kitchen table last week.
English adverbs tend to be easier to master, although they also have their own order and rules.
Two important rules you should remember are that they precede the adjective they modify and they normally come after the verb they modify, especially if they are adverbs of manner and place.
These are two incorrect sentences:
Peter beautifully sings.
He is an intelligent very boy.
And here are the correct versions:
Peter sings beautifully.
He is a very intelligent boy.
Connectors, also called linking words, are words we use to link or connect phrases and sentences.
Connectors are useful because they make our writing more fluid and natural.
When you don’t use connectors, your text tends to have short sentences. This is how children normally speak or write.
When you add connectors to your work, you get closer to how native speakers of English talk or write, and you will certainly make a better impression on your teacher/client/reader.
No native speaker would talk or write like this:
The car was very beautiful. I could not afford it. I asked my brother for money. I bought the car.
Way to go, Hemingway! This is much better writing:
The car was beautiful but I could not afford it, so I asked my brother for money and bought it anyway.
Who vs. whom
Knowing the difference between who and whom and using them correctly can make a great difference in your writing. Even native English speakers often mix these two up!
Maybe knowing how to use whom will not land you the job of your dreams by itself, but combine knowledge of when to use whom with some amazing writing skills?
You are hired!
A basic trick you can use to figure out which one to use is to try to replace “who” or “whom” with a pronoun. If you can say “he/she/they” in the sentence, use who. If you can use “him/her/them” instead, use whom.
Here are some examples of the correct and incorrect ways to use who and whom:
To who do you want to speak? (Incorrect)
Who do you want to speak to? (Correct, informal)
To whom do you want to speak? (Correct, formal)
There were 50 students, 12 of who were from Spain. (Incorrect)
There were 50 students, 12 of whom were from Spain. (Correct)
Few, a few, fewer / little, a little and less
English quantifiers can be challenging at the beginning.
That is why you should pay special attention to them and learn how and when each of them is used.
You would not cause the best impression with your writing if you used them incorrectly, so try to master them as soon as you can.
The basic rule is to use few when you are talking about something you can count (cats, TV shows, dollars), and use less when you are talking about something uncountable (love, snow, money).
This is incorrect:
I have a little friends.
Since you can count how many friends you have, you would use few:
I have a few friends.
Here is another incorrect example:
I couldn’t care fewer.
You cannot count caring, so you should use less here:
I couldn’t care less.
Negation and double negation
English negation is one of those topics that gets more and more complicated the more you look into it.
You do not need to be the king of negatives in order to write well in English, but you should always keep negation and double negation to a minimum whenever possible.
Remember that you should not use two negatives to make a positive, so watch out for tricky negative combinations. There are exceptions (which you will see in our example below), but this is a good general rule to follow.
Also, try to avoid a double negation if you can easily replace it with an affirmative sentence.
This sentence lost me after the first few words, Are you driving to the movie theater or not!?
I don’t know no way of not driving to the movie theater. (What?)
Here are two other ways you can say the same sentence, but this time without using so many negatives:
I don’t know how to drive to the movie theater. (Correct)
I don’t know any way of driving to the movie theater. (Correct)
The following sentence is technically correct, but only used when you want to react to someone saying someone is impolite.
He is not impolite.
This sentence is correct and neutral in meaning:
He is polite.
Active vs. passive voice
Using the English passive voice will be necessary from time time, especially if you have to write formally and impersonally.
But if you are just writing a school assignment or a simple email to a friend, try to avoid the passive voice whenever you can.
This sentence is grammatically correct but the way it is phrased is very odd and unnatural:
Hi, John! The book I was told about by you has been found by me.
This is a much more natural way to say the same thing:
Hi, John! I have found the book you told me about!
Indirect speech and indirect questions
If you are still not familiar with indirect speech, indirect questions and how they work, you should start having a look at them as soon as you finish reading this post.
Indirect speech has a set of rules that makes it work in ways that can be difficult at the beginning, but a good piece of writing will include them when necessary.
Besides, this is another of those topics that can mean the difference between sounding like a beginner and a proficient writer.
Here are two incorrect examples:
He wanted to know what time is it?
They asked me “how do you know.”
And here are the correct versions of the same sentences:
He wanted to know what time it was.
They asked me how I knew.
Do you feel the difference?
Are you a better writer yet?
Improving your English writing skills is not a difficult task. There are only a couple of basic English writing rules and tips you should take into account in order to start writing even better.
Remember that practice is super important when it comes to writing, so write often.
Reading will also help you improve your writing skills a lot, because you will learn new vocabulary and grammar structures that you can use in your writing later on.
So take a pen and a piece of paper and start writing your next best-seller now.
Stay curious my friends and, as always, happy learning!