Ten Ideas for Improving Writing

In honor of the tenth post on my blog, here's a list of ten ideas to improve writing skills!

1. Eliminate Passive Voice

Many novice writers construct sentences in passive voice by default. Nevertheless, using the passive voice without a clear purpose flattens even the best writing. Writing that strings together passive voice sentences seems lifeless and limp. Sentences written in passive voice invert the natural subject-verb-object (SVO) order. Sentences in passive voice place the emphasis on the object rather than the subject (creating SOV order). As readers, we have to work harder to understand who did what to whom. When I read other people’s writing, I flag instances of passive voice, like this one:

“The lazy dog was jumped over by the quick brown fox.”

The lazy dog is at the beginning of the sentence, grabbing our attention, but the lazy dog doesn’t DO anything in this sentence. The quick brown fox is the actor and performs the jumping, but his or her position at the end of the sentence minimizes the fox as the actor. We expect to find the actor at the beginning doing an action, not at the end of the sentence, performing an action to the object at the beginning.

The active voice shows us who does what to whom. I urge writers to learn, understand, and use the active voice until they have mastered it. Use the active voice unless you really know what you’re doing with the passive voice and have become some kind of verb ninja. Learn to use the passive voice with intention, not because you don’t know any better.

Write in active voice: “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.”

2. Start Sentences with Clear actors, Rather Than Vague Pronouns

I think writers tend to begin sentences with vague pronouns (this, that, or these) to avoid repeating themselves. Beginning as sentence with either one of these phrases raises no immediate grammar flags; however, the meaning of the pronouns may not be clear. Writers often think that the reader will understand what the pronoun stands for. Readers, on the other hand, may not follow. For example, a writer analyzing the physiology of foxes jumping over lazy dogs might write:

“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. This reveals…”

The pronoun at the beginning of the second sentence isn’t clear. This what? This particular kind of jump? This fox? This lazy dog? This kind of jump over the lazy dog? We’re not sure. The writer could make the sentence clearer by keeping a firm grip on the reader’s hand throughout the sentence:

“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. The fox’s jumps reveal that…” Now we see that the writer is talking about the fox’s jumps and telling us that they mean something specific. A little bit repetitive? Sure. But infinitely clearer with actual nouns and verbs instead of vague pronouns that make us guess at their meaning and what they stand for.

3. Avoid Nominalizations

Academic writers love nominalizations (especially me) and use them with relish. Nominalizations are nouns and adjectives made out of verbs and (sometimes) other nouns. They end in suffixes like -ism, ity, -ness, -tion, -ize, -ment, etc. Excavate becomes excavation. Perform becomes perfomativity. A whole bunch of nouns become antidisestablishmentarianism (opposition to those who oppose the establishment). Writers who use too many nominalizations bombard their readers with that kind of academic jargon-speak that everyone loves to hate.

Use the concrete noun or verb forms of nominalizations. You don’t mean conceptualizations. You mean concepts (which really means that you mean ideas). You don’t mean performativity. You mean to perform. And so on.

The quick brown fox engaged in the performativity of jumping…” Obnoxious. Use the verb form of nominalizations and watch sentences like these melt away.

4. Use Shorter Words, Sentences, and Paragraphs

Big words are fun to play with, but often frustrate readers. For example, write “many” instead of “numerous.” Just as readers understand short words more easily, so do they also understand shorter sentences. Writers often lose readers when they insist on packing too many ideas into a single sentence. Using small words, make a sentence with one idea. Allow the reader to grasp the concept, and move on to the next idea. Make some short paragraphs. No reader wants to face a solid wall of text. Be kind; write short sentences and paragraphs with simple words.

5. Punctuate Properly.

Readers dislike reading sentences with poor punctuation. Proper punctuation tells the reader where to pause, stop, and how to understand the words.

No one likes reading something without punctuation because then we don’t know where to stop or where one idea ends and another one begins or what if two clauses need to be joined and there’s no punctuation to tell us that the ideas are related and in general reading without punctuation is a terrible experience for everyone involved.

Learning punctuation and grammar rules intimidates many people; however, proper punctuation increases the clarity of any text. We understand where to pause, where to stop, and how ideas are connected. Learning proper punctuation isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but neither is fighting through incorrect punctuation to understand an idea.

6. Omit needless words.

I love cutting words to improve clarity. Many writers bog down their good ideas with unnecessary words. I am amazed by how many words I can cut without losing the meaning of a sentence. Many writers rely on adverbs and adjectives to add detail to their writing; however, concrete nouns and verbs also describe things clearly. Writing without adjectives feels strange at first, especially for writers (okay, me) used to describing everything in excessive detail. The trick is to use better verbs and nouns; when used with care, real nouns and verbs eliminate the need for adverbs and adjectives.

You can also eliminate meaningless phrases, like these:

  • In view of the fact that…
  • It is often the case that…
  • It may, however, be noted that…

Cut, cut, cut.

7. Write Topic Sentences

Readers expect the writer to lead them through an idea in a logical way. Topic sentences inform the reader of the subject of the sentence, organize ideas, and provide analysis. They should appear at the beginning of the paragraph. The topic sentence contains the topic of the paragraph and has a main point. The rest of the paragraph should have supporting details and evidence to support the main point of the paragraph.

“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog because he or she wanted to prove that foxes could jump higher than people previously thought.” Now the sentence does more than just describe an action; it makes an actual argument. The rest of the paragraph, then, should offer some details and evidence to support the main point.

8. Remove Waffling and Weak Language

Many academic writers undercut the power of their arguments when they use weak language. Novice writers often surround their arguments with words like these:

  • may
  • might
  • suggest
  • feel
  • I would...

“I would like to argue that the quick brown fox jumping over the lazy dog may suggest that…” Nope. Be brave. Be bold. Cut out weak language.

9. Proofread.

All writers struggle with proofreading their own work. The writer, knowing what he or she intends to say, mentally auto-corrects errors. Reading out loud often helps, as reading at the speed of one’s voice forces the writer to slow down and consider all of the words. Or, alternatively, use an editor or trusted person to proofread your work.

10. When in Doubt, Look It Up

Language evolves at a rapid pace and people discover new uses for words all the time. Style guides provide us with uniform rules for usage, punctuation, and citation. I advise writers to look up any usage cases they don’t know by heart. Is it 100 or one hundred? One half or one-half? The President of the United States or the president of the United States? Get a style guide, learn it, and use it.