Category Archives: writing tips

Nine tips I’ve learned from teaching the writing parts of the SAT and ACT

  1. A rewritten phrase or clause with the word “being” in it is almost always wrong. Perplexed student writing
  2. Shorter versions of rewritten grammar are usually the correct answers.  If in doubt, choose the shortest or second shortest answer.
  3. Hard to spot run-on sentences often have a comma in the middle of the sentence followed by a subject pronoun.   The comma needs to be  a period, or a semicolon.  Or you need to put a coordinating conjunction after the comma.
  4. If you have one dash, you need two dashes unless the sentence ends where the second dash would be.
  5. In lists or series, the important words must be the same part of speech such as all nouns, all verbs, all infinitives, or all gerunds.
  6. “It’s” means it is. “Its” means something belongs to it.  Its’ is not a word.
  7. “They’re” means they are. “Their” means something belongs to them.  “There” means over there or that something exists.  All three begin with “the.”  Thier is not a word.
  8. Commas come before coordinating conjunctions, not after unless what follows the conjunction is nonessential information.
  9. Third person singular verbs (the kind you use with “he,” “she,” or “it” as the subject) in the present tense end in an “s.”

Bloated words mean longer, boring writing

Utilize.  Three syllables.  Use.  One syllable.  Why not use “use”?

Price point.  Two words.  Price.  One word.  Why not use “price”?

Vaporous.  Three syllables.  Vapid.  Two syllables. Why not use “vapid”?

Inflating your writing with multi-syllabic or multi-phrasal words when simpler words work just as well makes your writing pompous, long and hard to understand.

So why do it?

  • To sound important. In college I worked as a telephone operator, but my brother suggested I introduce myself as “an international communications coordinator.”  Nobody knew what I was talking about, and when I explained I was a phone operator, they rolled their eyes.
  • To sound educated. Many SAT words are multi-syllablic:  capricious, ephemeral, and facilitated, for example.  But isn’t it easier to understand synonyms such as flighty, short-lived and made easy?  And why do we write?  To sound educated or to be understood?
  • To please an English teacher who confuses big words with deep thinking. In fact, big words obfuscate logic (clutter your meaning) and enshroud cogitation (hide poor thinking).

What can you do to rid your writing of clutter?

  • Look for empty words. If you look, you will find.  Many empty nouns end in “tion,” “ment” and “city.”  Turn them into verbs and then search for simpler synonyms.
  • Tell yourself that big words aren’t better.  They are just bigger.
  • Look up synonyms for long words. Many English words with the most punch are ancient Anglo-Saxon words of one or two syllables.
  • Read the poetry of Robert Frost. Frost rarely used even two-syllable words, and that is no fluke.  He said good writing should be understood on a literal level the first time it is read.

Write short.

Forbidding am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being

1  What if you could not use any forms of the verb “to be”?  No am, is, are, was, were, be, been or being.  No progressive verb tenses.  Fewer passive verbs. No “that’s” or “it’s.”  Could you do it?

2  That’s what two of my high school students were asked to do on a research paper due today.  Any form of the verb “to be” was outlawed by their teacher, even if that verb was part of a direct quote.

3  With no choice, they wrote and rewrote sentences.  They pared down direct quotes or paraphrased them.  They eliminated passive voice.  And then they asked me to scour their writing to be sure no forms of “to be” still lurked.

4  And they did it!

5  I was telling this to another student, an eighth grader, whose writing we had just revised, and for the heck of it, we re-revised, eliminating the verb “to be” in all its forms.  A funny thing happened.

6  The student’s writing became more concise.  The student’s writing contained more active verbs and fewer linking verbs.  “It’s better,” the student said.  “Oops,” he added, realizing he had said “it’s.”

Let’s try the strategy on this blog now.

In paragraph 1, I cannot eliminate the forms of the verb “to be” or you might not know what I am talking about.

Paragraph 2 begins with “That’s,” meaning “that is,” and later in the sentence, contains the passive verb “were asked.”  I can rewrite that sentence to say “Two of my high school students needed to do. . .” dropping the “were asked” part.  In the next sentence “was outlawed” and “was” need to be eliminated.  Instead I can write, “Students could use no form of the verb “to be” even if the verb occurred within a direct quote.”

Paragraph 3’s last sentence contains the infinitive “to be.”  I could rewrite that sentence like this:  “And then they asked me to scour their writing until. . .”

Paragraph 4 passes okay.

Paragraph 5 begins with “I was telling.”  I could easily change that to “I told.”

Paragraph 6 passes okay.

When I first heard about the “confining” verb choices for my students’ assignment, I said to myself, “Ridiculous.”  But now I am an ardent fan of this way of writing.  The results convinced me.  Fewer words.  Tighter sentences.  Fewer linking verbs.  More specific verbs.  More active voice.

Win-win.

How many names are too many names?

When you start to write a novel or a short story, how many characters should you introduce in the first scene?

I picked up the novel of a new-to-me but best-selling author tonight and started reading.  On the first page (really a half page), five characters were introduced along with their relationships to each other.  On the second page, four more people were named and their relationships.  On the third page, one more.  Ten names and a web of who knows how many relationships in two and a half pages of text.  None of them were developed enough to know more than “he’s a detective,” “she’s an au pair,” “she’s giving the party” and “he’s got a crush on the au pair.”

A bit into the second page I was flipping back to the first page to remind myself  who was who.  Then, befuddled, I pulled out a piece of paper and drew family tree-like relationships to keep characters straight.

Should this be necessary?  How many names are too many names?

I have never read any guidance on this topic.  Yet a maximum number of names is an important criterion for me to use to determine if I will keep reading.  If I find myself needing to draw family trees, I ask myself, “Is this worth reading?”  “No,” I almost always decide.  If an author can’t figure out how to introduce characters without confusing me, then the author can’t be that good.  I put the book back on the shelf and move on.

In college I needed to read Anna Karenina in English 101.  At the front of my translation was a list of characters which at first intimidated me.  But I rarely  consulted it.  Tolstoy had a way of introducing characters without overloading my short-term memory.  For the heck of it, I just now checked to count how many characters Tolstoy introduced by name in that novel’s first scene (about two pages).  The answer–three:  Stiva, his wife, Dolly, and one man named as part of a silly dream, a man whose name we realize immediately is not important.  Other people’s roles are mentioned—a French governess, an English governess, a housekeeper, a cook, a kitchen-maid, a coachman, the children—but they are not named.  A reader needs to keep track of only two.  And one of those two we are learning about intimately since those pages are told from his point of view.

How many names are too many names?  I don’t know.  But when I am confused by the third page, that is too many names.

Add these two mysteries to your reading bucket list

As a tutor, one way I help students is to read the books they are required to read in school.  Then we discuss and write about those books.  The student learns more about the books this way, I can develop writing topics for my students, and I can analyze gems to help me be a better writer.  Win–win–win.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.During the past week to help an eighth grader, I reread The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.  In 2013 the Crime Writers’ Association in Britain named it the best crime novel ever, in part because it “contains one of the most celebrated plot twists in crime writing history.”  A similar group in the US named it number 13.

At the same time, for my own reading pleasure, I reread The Big Sleep  by Raymond Chandler.  In 1999, it was voted 96th of Le Monde‘s “100 Books of the Century.” It was included in Time magazine’s List of the 100 Best Novels” in 2005.

I like both books, but for different reasons.

I reread the Christie book to find out how she was able to hide the identity of the murderer until the last pages while having that character front and center throughout the telling of the story.  She gives subtle clues but on the whole stuns readers with the book’s ending.  Christie said she wrote this book to see if she could succeed at this twist in a plot line.  She did, brilliantly, though her characters, except for her debuting detective, Hercule Poirot, are easily forgotten.

I reread the Chandler book not remembering who the murderer is or even caring.  I read to enjoy the author’s style.  Detective Philip Marlow’s character, especially his sense of humor, is developed deliciously.  The author’s descriptions of settings are meticulous, each seeming to be a metaphor of the characters who inhabit them.  Tiny details like the doctor writing on a pad with attached carbon paper date the story, while other details like “a smile as wide as Wilshire Boulevard” anchor the story in Los Angeles.

Writers can learn from both authors.

From Christie we can learn how to plot a novel, especially a crime mystery.  We can learn to include light-heartedness—in the form of the narrator’s chatty sister, Caroline—in what otherwise is a humorless story.  We can learn that pivotal details must seem organic to the story, not pulled out of a magician’s hat, unlike the explanation for who made a crucial phone call to the doctor on the night of the murder.

From Chandler we can learn how to develop memorable, quirky characters.  We can learn how to write metaphors and similes which reveal character but which are also in keeping with the personality of the person thinking them.  We can learn to use witty, flirting dialog.  We can learn how to make a setting—in this case 1930s LA—almost a character.

Since Chandler’s novels rely on sex in their plots and in their chauvinistic development of women characters, his books might not be suitable for eighth graders.  Christie’s, on the other hand, are suitable for almost all ages.  If you have a bucket list of books to read—for pleasure or to hone your craft—add The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Big Sleep to the top.  You will thank me.