Updated: May 4, 2021
Have you ever wondered what the difference is between advanced writing and regular writing? If so, this blog post is for you. We will discuss five advanced English writing techniques that can help improve your skills when it comes to writing in the English language. These methods are useful for college and university students, office workers, or anyone who just wants to level up their writing. By mastering these techniques, you'll add more variety, clarity, and character to your writing.
1. Use complex sentences ("Since that time, things have improved.")
English has three main types of sentences.
I. Simple sentences
"Melissa called her mom."
Structure: One independent clause. This sentence makes sense on its own and has a subject and a verb.
II. Compound sentences
"Melissa called her mom, and they talked for hours."
Structure: Two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, so, for, or, yet, nor).
III. Complex sentences
"After calling her mom, Melissa had dinner."
Structure: One independent clause and one dependent clause. The dependent clause begins with a subordinating conjunction. Subordinating conjunctions include words such as while, because, since, for, whenever, wherever, whatever, after, before, unless, if, whether or not, even though, and many others.
Complex sentences are essential in advanced writing, and they can add a lot of variety to your compositions. They can also usually be inverted.
"As soon as I got home, I started preparing dinner."
"I started preparing dinner as soon as I got home."
"Whenever I have a bad day, I listen to The Beach Boys."
"I listen to The Beach Boys whenever I have a bad day."
"Because of this error, we will not be able to process your request."
"We will not be able to process your request because of this error."
Of course, you should use a variety of sentence types, but if you're only writing with simple and compound sentences, your writing can feel flat. The solution? Get used to using complex sentences in your compositions.
2. Use cleft sentences ("It is his attitude that's the problem.")
Because we can't use spoken intonation in writing, we need to use other ways to emphasize what we feel is the most important part of a sentence. While you could always use italics to do this, cleft sentences allow us to do this as well. Look at these sentences:
"It was Eric who stole the pencils." (focus and emphasis = Eric)
"It was the pencils that Eric stole." (focus and emphasis = the pencils)
Cleft sentences shift the focus of a sentence. They are two-part sentences that can also be expressed by a simple sentence. For the above examples, we can simply say "Eric stole the pencils," but this sentence provides a dry fact without any emphasis. When an advanced or native English speaker says "It was Eric who stole the pencils," they give the most stress to the word "Eric." With this technique, you're adding intonation and stress to your writing!
There are several types of cleft sentences, but the two most common are the it-cleft and the Wh-cleft.
It + verb "to be" conjugation + subject + relative clause (who/whom, that/which, where, when)
"It was downtown Montreal where the riots happened."
"It wasn't the price that was the problem."
"It is your policies that need to change."
Wh clause (most often: "What") + verb "to be" conjugation + emphasized word or phrase
"What we need is more time." (this can also be inverted: "More time is what we need.")
"What disappointed me was the speech." / "The speech was what disappointed me."
"How we do this is up to you." / "It's up to you how we do this."
What I'm saying is that cleft sentences can add more punch to your writing.
3. Use strong verbs and adjectives ("I have produced a handy list for your reference.")
Vocabulary is indispensable to clear and effective writing. Whether you are a creative writer or a practical writer, using strong verbs--when possible--helps your writing to stand out.
"My heart is beating quickly." --> "My heart is pounding."
"Could you please show it?" --> "Could you please demonstrate it?"
"We made new marketing materials." --> "We developed new marketing materials."
"We have changed our software." --> "We have overhauled our software."
There is a general guideline that regular verbs (verbs that only need to add -ed to make their past form, such as walk, need, want, play, etc.) are weaker than irregular verbs, but this is a subjective explanation. What sounds "strong" to you might sound "weak" to someone else.
For adjectives, however, it is a bit easier to tell a weak one from a strong one.
"It's cold." --> "It's freezing."
"The presentation was tiring." --> "The presentation was exhausting."
"The food wasn't good." --> "The food was unappetizing."
In general, stay away from general adjectives like "good" and "bad." Be more specific. What makes it good? What makes it bad? What unique qualities are you trying to focus on?
4. Use metaphor and exaggeration ("The internet is down.")
"Metaphor and exaggeration?" you say. "But I'm just writing an email to a client." Even so, a well-placed metaphor or an exaggerated phrase can add character and tone to a common email. Look at these examples:
"Your last email made my day." (your last email was one of the best parts of my day)
"Thanks for brightening up my morning!" (thanks for making my morning better)
"We feel this is just a Band-Aid solution." (this is a temporary fix; it won't last)
"Our boss has a heart of gold." (he is caring and empathetic)
"Wherever she goes, she lights up the room." (her positive attitude is contagious)
As an advanced English writer (and speaker), metaphors and exaggerated sentences can help your language to stand out. Here is a useful article from the MacMillan Dictionary for further research and practice.
5. Use the passive voice to shift focus and to soften your sentences
One of the most common questions English teachers hear is "Why do we use the passive voice?" There are several reasons. Sometimes...
We don't know the doer of the action
"We were robbed last night." (We don't know by whom)
"The documents should have been sent by now." (We don't know who is responsible for sending them. Maybe we are waiting for government documents, and it is impossible for us to know who in the government is supposed to send them)
We want to hide the doer of the action
"We were lied to." (We know who lied to us--our boss, for example--but we are trying to be less direct and to soften the tone of the conversation. We don't want to say "You lied to us!" to our boss, perhaps because we know that will only lead to more arguing)
"I am being harassed at work." (Perhaps we are not ready yet to reveal who is harassing us)
We want our reader to focus on the object, not the subject
"My laptop was damaged beyond repair." (This means it cannot be fixed. I know who damaged my laptop, and the person I'm writing to knows as well, but I want to focus on the laptop and not the person who did it in this sentence. The laptop is what I care about. Maybe I want the company to compensate me for the damage)
"I was taken advantage of." (Perhaps you are writing to your boss, and you want to tell them that they took advantage of you. However, you don't want to focus on your boss' action, but on how it affected you...you were the one who suffered. This was something that was done to you)
We want to report a crime or explain a process
(this helps create a mental distance from the crime or event, making is feel softer)
"Two thousand dollars were stolen." (Perhaps we know the doer, or perhaps we don't. Either way, reporting criminal activity is often done using the passive voice)
"The money will be deposited once we have your banking information." (The process feels more impersonal with this structure instead of saying "We will deposit the money once we have your banking information.")
In all of these cases, there is a distance created from the subject, and a greater emphasis placed on the receiver of an action. Once you start using the passive voice in these contexts, you will see just how common and useful it can be.
A final note
Everyone has their own voice, so everyone's writing will be slightly different. Some people might overuse complex sentences, and others might not use them enough. In the end, I recommend using moderation and your own judgment for how to use these techniques. Perhaps you do not use metaphors very often when you write in your first language. That's fine! You don't have to suddenly start using them in English.
Also, reading a list like this can feel overwhelming (or "too much"). However, the goal isn't to magically start using all of these techniques. The purpose of an article like this is to give you some guidance to help you in the future. Practice one technique at a time, and don't rush. Maybe it will take a month or more to start getting comfortable, but with regular practice, you will get more comfortable.
Want to practice? Write to me in the comments and try using some of these techniques.
Want to increase your use of metaphors and exaggeration? Pick up a copy of my book, 200 Practical English Idioms and start using phrases like "I've been working around the clock," "Your presentation was out of this world," "We're on the same page," and more.
Until next time, I wish you success in your studies!