Here are six writing practices to make your writing better:
- Make your sentences clear during a first read, so the reader doesn’t say, “Huh?” A reader shouldn’t need to backtrack to figure out what you’re trying to say.
- Use varied sentence structure. Subject—verb—direct object. Prepositional phrase—adjective—subject—verb—adverb. Gerund—prepositional phrase—verb—adjective. Subject—verb—direct object—appositive. So many combinations exist. Why bore readers with the same old same old?
- Keep subjects and verbs near each other. A thought which is interrupted by prepositional phrases, clauses and other grammatical constructions leads to unclear reading. (The previous sentence’s subject is “thought.” Its verb comes twelve words later. This is an example of what not to do.)
- Eliminate most adverbs, especially those ending with -ly. Instead, choose strong verbs, so an adverb is not needed.
- Eliminate repeated words unless you are using them for emphasis. Some repeated words I see my students use are “start,” “then,” “so,” “like,” and “really.” Identify your repeated words, and see if you need them.
- Use good grammar, but don’t strive for perfect grammar. Writing today is more conversational than in the past. And more informal. (Did you notice that that last “sentence” is not a sentence at all but a fragment?) You can begin sentences with “and” and “but.” You can use “you” instead of “he” or “she” or “one.”
Writing well requires following certain steps in sequence:
- Narrowing your topic
- Organizing your information, including writing an overarching topic sentence or thesis and subtopic sentences or plot lines
- Writing a first draft
- Revising, revising, revising
Once your first draft is complete, revising becomes most important. So many tasks comprise revising—checking for complete sentences, tightening wordiness, analyzing ideas for logic, honing vocabulary, fixing grammar errors, adding figures of speech and style. Students wonder where to begin.
Begin with coherence, the most important element of writing. Coherence means making sure all your sentences make sense and flow from one to another. Coherence means making sure your readers understand what you mean—easily, at first read, without an interpreter.
How do you do that? Some ways include:
- Make sure every sentence in the body paragraphs supports the thesis. If you use an anecdote, make sure it is an example of the ideas in the thesis. If you use a simile or metaphor, make sure it fits with the topic. If the topic is igneous rock, for example, the simile “as hot as the steam from a steam boat” is off topic, whereas “as hot as a lava lake” is on topic.
- If you use numbers (three kinds of rocks, five members of my family, one favorite memory), check that you have named all the numbers and no more.
- Use logical transitions. “Because” means something causes something else. Make sure you have named a cause and an effect if you use “because.” “Finally” means the last one in a series or the last point. If you have only two or three points, you shouldn’t use “finally.” You should use “secondly,” or “next,” or “third.”
- If you use a pronoun, make sure you have named the noun the pronoun refers back to. And make sure you have named that noun before you use the pronoun (not “When she fell, Mary broke her arm,” but “When Mary fell, she broke her arm.” If you use “this,” make sure your reader can know in a word or phrase what “this” refers to. If “this” is vague or complicated, add a noun after “this” (this situation, this erosion, this loss of interest). If you have two women talking, make sure if you use “she,” the reader knows which one you are referring to. Otherwise, use her name or title or position.
- Check that your sentences are complete thoughts–not fragments or run-ons. Make sure your complex sentences contain no more than two dependent clauses so readers needn’t hold multiple ideas in their minds at once. Check that your sentences vary in length, with most more than ten and fewer than 20 words.
- Change your weak, vapid verbs to active, dynamic verbs. Eliminate the verb “to be” and passive voice verbs.
If what you write lacks coherence, no matter how specific the vocabulary, no matter how beautiful the description, no matter how lofty your aim, your writing will flop. Your writing must make sense to a reader without you standing at her elbow explaining, “Well, what I mean is. . .”
Posted in "to be", active verbs, because, clarity, coherence, complex sentence, English Writing Instruction, flow, good writing v. bad writing, metaphors, number of words per sentence, organizing information, passive verbs, pronouns, readability, revising first drafts, run-ons, similes, thesis, Transitions, word choice
The surest way to improve writing is to write strong verbs. But what are they?
- verbs which show specific actions
- verbs with one unambiguous meaning
- verbs of Anglo-Saxon origin
- verbs of one or two syllables
- verbs stated in the active voice
The surest way to weaken writing is to write weak verbs. What are they?
- linking verbs, especially forms of the verb “to be”
- verbs with multiple meanings
- verbs with general, nonspecific meanings
- three-, four-, and five-syllable verbs of Latin origin
- verbs stated in the passive voice
Take the quiz to see if you can spot the strong verb.
1a. The Senator waited for the election returns.
1b. The Senator sweated out the election returns.
1c. The Senator listened for the election returns.
2a. Grandma looked peaceful sleeping in her rocker.
2b. Grandma slept in her rocker.
2c. Grandma giggled while sleeping in her rocker.
3a. The toddler squealed while opening his gift.
3b. The toddler was excited while opening his gift.
3c. The toddler cried out while opening his gift.
4a. The coffee burned my tongue.
4b. The coffee scalded my tongue.
4c. The coffee hurt my tongue.
5a. I was startled when the cat appeared.
5b. I was surprised when the cat appeared.
5c. I leapt when the cat appeared.
1b. “Sweated out” is more specific.
2c. “Giggled” is an action.
3c. “Squealed” is more specific.
4b. “Scalded is more specific.
5c. “Leapt” is an active voice verb.
George Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, published an essay in 1946 called “Politics and the English Language.” In it he offers six rules for better writing. I reproduce them here in Orwell’s own words.
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Some of the advantages of active verbs are
- Clarity—Active verbs make your writing easily understood the first time someone reads it. The subject of the sentence usually comes before the verb. The subject performs the verb, the usual way of expressing through sentences in English.
- Brevity—The most concise way to write uses active verbs. Compare: Wilma ate the sandwich. [active verb—four words] The sandwich was eaten by Wilma. [passive verb—six words] If we omit “by Wilma” in the second version, we have four words, the same as the first version. But those four words give less information.
- Action—Your writing zips along when you use active verbs. Active verbs “slip.” They make scenes go faster and conversations race. That’s why sports writers write in active verbs. Orders use active verbs.
Then, why do we have passive verbs?
- To mask the performer of an action—Sometimes we don’t want to say who did the action of the verb because it might be more diplomatic not to identify the actor. “The last chocolate chip cookie has been eaten.” Or we might not know who did the action. For example, you could say, “The market was targeted and bombed.”
- To confuse. Sometimes a writer deliberately wants to keep the reader confused or unsure. Detective novelists use this technique. For example, you could say, “In darkness the body was buried in the woods. It was covered with six inches of leaves, after which all footprints were swept until they were not noticeable.”
- To slow down the action. For example, you might say, “The history exam was returned to Jane. It was folded, the grade hidden within where it could not be seen by classmates.”
- To focus on the action of thinking. Henry James, a 19th century American novelist, wrote in the passive voice and often used the verb “to be.” Many readers today find his writing ponderous because of its long sentences and lack of action. Actually there is action, but it is in characters’ heads. This kind of writing seems quaint and tedious to 21st century readers who want James to get to the point. But maybe the people he wrote for had leisure to appreciate a slower pace in fiction.