Following a long career as a writer/editor of articles for the industrial trade press, I've undertaken in retirement to help aspiring authors--including many for whom English is not their native language--meet readability and publication standards for articles submitted to online discussion forums. Based on that experience, I've identified a number of specific areas in which improvement is commonly called for. What follows is a list of ten tips that I hope can provide some guidance to writers for avoiding the most common pitfalls on their own.
1) Articles submitted to online discussion forums will generally follow the form of either an "argumentative" or "expository" essay. Using the argumentative form, which applies typically to so-called "opinion pieces," your task is to build a case--to argue--for a particular position on an issue that is open to different points of view. A title of such an article might be: "Building a Wall Along the Mexican Border Will Do Little To Curb the Influx of Drugs."
Your task in writing an "expository" article, however, would be quite different. It would not be to build a case for a particular point of view, but rather to explain your take on a subject of particular interest. A representative title for an expository piece might be something like "How Three Movies Changed the Way I Look at Life."
2) Every article, either argumentative or expository, must be based on a thesis--or governing idea--that is usually stated at the beginning of the article and validated in subsequent paragraphs, either by persuasive argument or by explanation (or "exposition") that elucidates the thesis proposition.
If, for example, the title of your opinion piece is in fact "Building a Wall Along the Mexican Border Will Do Little To Curb the Influx of Drugs," your thesis might be expressed in a sentence like this: "For all the controversy about 'building a wall' along the U.S./Mexico border, several factors suggest that such a barrier would have only minimal effect in reducing the influx of drugs into the U.S." Your job as a writer would then be to build a case for that opinion by substantiating with verifiable facts how and why the intended effect of the wall would likely be circumvented.
If, however, you're writing an expository article with the title "How Three Movies Changed the Way I Look at Life," your thesis statement might be something like this: "Far more than any influence from four years of college or my job-related travels around the world, it was three movies--experienced in less than six hours--that truly changed the way I look at life." Your task would then be to explain the ways in which the impact of those movies produced such a personal transformation.
To help motivate the care you take in organizing your article, it's important to recognize that no piece of writing in the public domain can hope to have an impact on, or be of interest to, a broad audience with divergent views if it serves mainly as a vehicle for venting personal emotion or sentiment. Its purpose, instead, must be to appeal to the shared human capacity for reason. To that end, your article must either offer a logical argument that can cause readers to freshly assess their position on an issue, or a compelling interpretation of facts that can give them new insight into possibilities they had never before seriously considered.
3) To reach the ends proposed in Tip 2, your article needs above all to be logically organized. One way to help ensure your writing stays on track is to first prepare and then follow an article outline. However, since producing a workable outline is itself a creative act, you may find that a good way to begin is to spontaneously start writing your article with the first words that come to mind. Putting those initial thoughts on paper can be a big help. They can suggest the various points you'll need to develop in an argumentative essay to build a case that validates your governing thesis, or, in an expository essay, to provide the necessary explanation to fully support it. With those points in mind, you can then create a comprehensive outline that prescribes the logical sequence in which they should be developed and the subsidiary details that are needed to fully substantiate them.
4) Your article should have an identifiable beginning, middle, and end. The beginning, or first paragraph, will contain your thesis statement--the governing idea you want to validate or support. The middle, or body, of the paper, which is usually composed of several paragraphs, is where you build the argument, or provide the explanation, needed to validate or support your thesis. The end, or conclusion, of your article typically contains a brief recapitulation of how the body text validates or supports your thesis.
5) All paragraphs in each section of your article must be unified around a fresh topic point, which is usually expressed in the initial sentence. All following sentences in the paragraph should help substantiate that point, in a general ordering from most important to least. Use connecting words or phrases to begin the sentences, where they can be helpful in marking the logical flow. Common examples include "However," "Nevertheless," "In addition," "Still another factor," "Finally," etc. Keep in mind, however, that you are not observing this grammatical nicety merely for the sake of pedagogical correctness or dry reason. You are doing so to make your argument or exposition more readable. An ability to easily grasp the logical continuity between sentences relieves readers of having to figure out, or even try to guess, how points the writer is making fit into the argument or exposition he (or she) is trying to develop in each paragraph. That same ease of understanding also makes readers more receptive to the writer's views.
6) Even more than sentences within paragraphs, complete paragraphs rely on introductory connecting words or phrases to make clear their logical continuity with a preceding paragraph. Always use them to make sure your readers stay on track with your overall argument or exposition. For example, if you've developed a topic point in the preceding paragraph that lays the groundwork for the next point to be developed, you may want to begin the new paragraph with a phrase such as "Given that reality,".... On the other hand, if the new paragraph imposes a qualification on what was said in the previous one, you can signal that point with an introductory phrase such as "In spite of," or "In contrast to,"....
7) A major problem affecting the clarity of writing for many non-professional writers is improper word choice. To make sure your readers infer from your words exactly the meaning you intend, you yourself must be aware of the exact meaning of all the words you use. To that end, as well as to ensure correct spelling, a good dictionary source, whether in book form or online, should serve as a constant companion.
8) Correct sentence syntax is also essential to advancing your argument or exposition with maximum clarity. When your thought process results in very long sentences, give your reader a break and make your meaning clear by dividing them into two or even three smaller sentences. That will force you to use connecting words and phrases that produce an easy-to-follow logical flow. In making those connections, pay attention to requirements like the following: When you use an introductory parenthetical phrase, set it off from the main clause by a comma: "Having met those challenges, he found himself facing new obstacles." When you follow a main clause with a non-restrictive relative clause, set it off by a comma and begin the clause with the function word "which": "She gave a compelling speech before a hostile audience, which was a great surprise to all who had thought her a shrinking violet." But, when you follow a main clause with a restrictive relative clause, omit the comma and begin the clause with the function word "that": "He was largely responsible for resolving an issue that had been a major impediment to progress in the past." To make sure you're up to speed on all the elements of correct sentence structure, google "sentence syntax" and learn the relevant rules from many sites.
9) In long articles, use subheads to orient readers to salient shifts in the development of your argument or exposition. In most cases, major subheads will be helpful in marking the shift to the middle, or body, of your article, as well as to its end, or conclusion. The subhead introducing the body of your article should epitomize the argument or explanation you develop there to validate or support your first-paragraph thesis statement. In doing so, it operates in the same way that the article title epitomizes the thesis itself. The subhead introducing the conclusion of your article should epitomize your brief recapitulation there of how the body text validates or explains your thesis. In addition, subordinate subheads can be used in the body of the article to mark significant topical shifts.
10) Finally, be sure to make your formatting consistent. Each repeated formatting element--line spacings, paragraph spacings, indentations, major subheads, subordinate subheads, bullet points, enumerations, etc.--must be rendered everywhere with the same measurements, punctuation, plain or bold face, type style and size, etc. Remember, too, to always place periods and commas within--never outside--quotation marks, and to use the double quotation mark (") to indicate primary quoted statements and the single quotation mark (') to indicate a secondary quote within a quote. Such meticulousness is important not only to further enhance the clarity of your content, but to display a concern for correctness that will encourage readers to accept the argument or exposition you develop with greater confidence and respect.
A LAST NOTE: