I have Brian Clark’s charmingly redundant “10 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer” displayed at eye level above my desk at work. I read good writing. I read about good writing. But I know the best way to improve my writing is simple: keep writing.
In my work, I edit a wide range of content written by people of varying skill levels. Business proposals. Personal essays. Blog posts. Academic treatises. What do they have in common? A handful of characteristics that weaken arguments and sap the sizzle from sentences.
So while writing is a skill to develop for a lifetime—and Brian’s poster reminds me of that goal every day—careful avoidance of three common crutches will instantly improve your writing (freeing you up to focus on the thousands of other ways to become a better writer).
1. There’s a Wrong Way to Start a Sentence. It’s this.
Search your current work-in-progress for every sentence beginning with “there is” and “it is.” Then rewrite each one. Why ramble into your point when you can get straight to it?
Consider the difference between “There is a monastic school in Greece with an ancient manuscript on display” and “A monastic school in Greece has an ancient manuscript on display.” The second is direct, wasting no words.
Here’s another example: “It’s easy to upgrade to WordPress because there are many free templates” becomes “Hundreds of free templates make upgrading to WordPress easy.”
There is a right time to use there is and it is (see what I did there?) but spare use will sharpen, rather than dull, the occasional expression.
And while you’re at it, be careful with all of your demonstrative pronouns (this, that, those, these), no matter their position in the sentence. In many cases, a noun used in place of the pronoun will be clearer and more interesting. Example: “Mr. Smith considered that a violation of his First Amendment rights” is vague, as opposed to the direct claim “Mr. Smith considered his firing a violation of his First Amendment rights.”
2. Stay Active.
Your ninth-grade English teacher was right. Active voice is vital, passionate, happening. But awkward, meandering sentences often are formed by the passive voice. (Yawn.)
Yes, passive is appropriate in certain circumstances (like when the agent of the action is unknown or unimportant). But in my observation, the passive voice is more commonly a reflex of the less-confident writer trying distance himself or herself from the subject matter. If you’re going to put it in writing, don’t beat around the bush. The straightest line from subject to verb to object is usually more interesting—and more persuasive.
3. Cut the meaningless words. Literally.
Maybe we’re nervous, or excited, or just like the sound of our own voices. Whatever the reasons, we stuff our conversations with unnecessary words.
Very. Really. Literally. Actually. Personally. (Come on. You don’t personally think dogs are better than cats; you think dogs are better than cats. And what’s a “personal belief”? Have you ever had an “impersonal belief”?)
While these forgettable fillers don’t kill our conversations, they do drain our paragraphs of their power. Be ruthless in cutting them (very, very ruthless) and you’ll find your writing much improved.
What writing crutches are on your to-avoid list?