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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Variety is the Spice of Writing

When students get comfortable writing at a high intermediate or low advanced level, it can be difficult for them to push forward and improve beyond this point.  It is often the case that by the time they get to this level, their writing is “clear enough” and “accurate enough” for readers to understand.  This can give writers the sense that there is no need to improve their writing further.  To someone in this situation, I encourage you to read on and learn how to make ‘good writing’ even better. 

Pick up a book, a newspaper or a magazine.  Look at a well-crafted piece of English writing and notice the sentences.  You will probably see a wide variety of vocabulary as well as various sentence and paragraph structures.  You may note a mixture of shorter and longer sentences: simple, compound and complex sentences. There will be active sentences, passive sentences, sentences that begin with prepositional phrases, sentences that begin with gerunds, sentences that begin with infinitives. There will be present tense, past tense, perfect tenses, progressives, imperatives and conditionals.  There will be adjective clauses, adverb clauses, participial phrases and appositives.  All of this variety will be used fluidly to make each sentence unique and interesting, driving the reader to keep going.  You might not have noticed this before.  (For more information on “Noticing” as a language learning technique, see the post from January 12, 2012.)
Now look at a piece of your own writing.  Does your writing exhibit a similar level of variety?  Or are your sentences written from a limited selection of vocabulary and roughly the same length with roughly the same subject-verb-(object) format?  If you notice the later, I have some suggestions for increasing your  variety. 
First, consider the word-level.  Are your words selected from a limited range?  If so, there are many resources available for you to reference.  My favorite suggestion is to write with a thesaurus at hand. 

If you are unfamiliar, a thesaurus is a reference book (or online database) of synonyms.  So when you find yourself using the same words over and over, you can reference a thesaurus to learn of words with similar meanings that you can substitute and work into your vocabulary.  Say I’m writing an article review.  It might first look like:
Original: This article was interesting and I liked the writing. It was easy to read and I read it quickly.  I would like to read more articles from this writer and I think others in the field should also read this writer’s articles.”
After I wrote this, I realized that I overused the words (and the various forms of)  “article”, “like”, “read” and “write.”  With a quick check of the thesaurus, I can rewrite the passage to:
Revision: This article was interesting and I enjoyed the writing. It was easy to comprehend and I got through it quickly.  I would like to read more pieces from this researcher and I think others should also investigate this writer’s work.
With the replacement of a few synonyms, the passage is more varied, more interesting and elevated to a higher formality level.  Once you get in the habit of referencing a thesaurus, make an effort to incorporate new words into your regular vocabulary so your writing variety increases without the use of reference tools. 
You will find many types of thesaurus at your local book store or library.  Also, check out these online tools.
Once you have increased your word variety, begin working on your sentence variety.  Be sure that you are “in-the-know” about the types of sentences, phases and clauses that can be used in English writing.  An excellent resource for this is the Guide to Grammar and Writing pages: Sentence Variety and Types, Garden of Phrases, and Clauses: The Essential Building Blocks. These webpages have excellent explanations, examples and exercises to help you understand and practice these forms.  Then you can work to incorporate them into your own writing. 

While you do all this, keep paying attention to the forms you see when you read and make notes (mental or physical) on the ways writers incorporate variety into their writing.  Soon you will be writing at a more advanced level and reflecting more professionalism.

For more on great tools to increase your vocabulary, see Synonym Sophistication


  1. I totally agree with you. Non-native speaker like me and others should try to elevate our level and variety of writing. We might stuck somewhere because of the limited of our vocabulary and words or because we can't write a complex sentence. Sometimes learners find themselves and i bad situation since we don't have the ability to produce many different words in our writing. I know it is very important to post alot of different words in any paragraph and avoid the redundancy as possible. I wish we will learn more here in USA since we have the chance and time to do more practise here in this country.

  2. Hi Ahmed. I hope you find the information here helpful. Blogs and other reputable online sources can be useful tools for English learning. I would welcome you as a follower and would like to hear any suggestions for future posts. All my best to you!