I came across this fantastic blog post by Leah McClellan of Simple Writing, which discusses 5 ways to improve your writing. I thought it was too good to keep to myself. What follows are the 5 ways, in my own words, and with commentary and examples. In keeping with my Bulletproof Writing mission, I have endeavored to use as few technical words as possible.
1. Don’t introduce sentences with fluff
Get to the point, fast. Instead of, say, “She was the kind of girl who loved ice skating,” simplify with, “She loved to ice skate.”
Here are some other no-nos. Those in red indicate unsuccessful sentences; those in blue are more successful:
“There are a lot of people who are sitting in the auditorium” vs. “Many people are sitting in the auditorium“
“It was your tone of voice that bothered me” vs. “Your tone of voice bothered me“
2. Avoid repetition
Although in the original post Leah warns against repeating the same words at the beginning of sentences and paragraphs (“She walked in the door. She took off her glasses. She put up the kettle for tea.”), I would expand that to the entire piece. I cannot tell you how many times I have come across the same or a similar word being used time after time, in sentence after sentence. (Did you notice just I did it, too? See below for a suggested correction.)
It’s hard for an author to see this type of mistake, because he or she is too close to the matter. This is a major reason why you need an editor to go over your work; they are one degree removed from the text and can see things with a fresh eye. Here are a few examples of the repetition problem:
“I’m not about to talk about the problem” vs. “I will not talk about the problem” or “I am not about to discuss this problem“
“Bert tried to find an appropriate word for the sentence he was writing. In the meantime, his daughter walked into the room wearing a dress that was not appropriate for church. He finally found the appropriate word, and was then able to address himself to his daughter’s inappropriate dress.” vs. “Bert tried to find the right word for the sentence he was writing. In the meantime, his daughter walked into the room wearing too casual a dress for church. He finally found the word he needed, and was then able to deal with his daughter’s inappropriate sartorial choice.”
“I cannot tell you how many times I have come across the same or a similar word being used time after time, in sentence after sentence” vs. “I cannot tell you how frequently I come across the same or a similar word being used time after time, in sentence after sentence“
Rereading your pieces multiple times will go a long way toward eliminating repetition such as the above. And reading your prose out loud never goes out of fashion.
For more tips on self-editing, see my post here.
3. Use fewer -ing words
Here I have very little to add to what Leah wrote. Pay attention to too many –ings in your writing. Your prose will sound more assertive and self-confident.
“You will no doubt be noticing that your writing is becoming more assertive and self-confident” vs. “Notice that your writing is more assertive and self-confident” or “Your writing has become more assertive and self-confident” or “You write assertively and self-confidently.”
Just a word from our sponsor: It is fine to use the phrase, “your writing,” as the word writing functions as a noun here.
“Yesterday, while it was raining, I was sitting at my computer contemplating writing a blog post. The phone was ringing nonstop, and I was finding myself not paying attention to what I was planning on writing.” vs. “It rained yesterday morning. While I sat at my computer, I thought about what to write for my next blog post. Every few minutes, the phone rang, and it was difficult to pay attention to the task at hand.”
In the corrected version, I’ve deleted all the –ing words, but of course you can leave some of them! Sometimes, it’s helpful to go all the way in the opposite direction before you find that “golden mean.” I highly recommend your trying to write without any –ing words for 10–15 minutes as a writing exercise.
What about parallel structure?
Sometimes you do need to use the same type of words in one sentence: “I’m reading, writing, and listening to music.” It would be wrong to say, “I’m reading, I write, and I have listened to music.” For more information on and examples of parallel structure, see my post here.
4. Pay attention to prepositions
Leah has a chart of common prepositions in her article; check it out and find some new ones!
I see two issues with regard to prepositions: using one unnecessarily and using either the wrong or a weak one.
“the teacher of the yoga class” vs. “the yoga teacher“
Since I so actively dislike “the ____ of the _____,” I’ll go out on a limb here and give you permission even to write, “the woman who teaches the yoga class.”
“the scent of the perfume” vs. “the perfume’s scent“
“the girl with black hair” vs. “the black-haired girl“
“the boy had guilt written all over his face” vs. “the boy was guilt-ridden” (would be even better to Show instead of Tell here)
“the boy with guilt written all over his face” vs. “the guilt-ridden boy“
Pay attention to “the ____ of the ____” structure that cannot be changed, for example:
Secretary of State
“Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States”
“Top o’ the morning to you”
…and look up official terms to see what is proper in your particular corner of the world, such as Ministry of the Interior vs. Interior Ministry.
Wrong or weak prepositions
The wrong preposition
Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out which preposition goes with a verb. Many times, you can get your answer from a dictionary (affiliate link). Don’t want to buy one? Use Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary.
In any case, if I’m stuck, I generally try to figure out which preposition to use by saying the sentence out loud. For example, recently I came across the following in a book I was editing: “Who can help hold you accountable on your goals?” I knew the preposition on was incorrect, but this was a tricky one. When I said the sentence aloud, the preposition to jumped out at me: “Who can help hold you accountable to your goals?”
Other times, the issue is which pronoun to use in a certain cliché or expression. For instance, “It’s hard on me.” This would work if you were talking about parenting: “Being a mother of an ADHD kid is hard on me and my nerves.” However, if you were discussing math, you’d need the preposition for, i.e., “These algebra problems are hard for me.”
A weak preposition
There are so many interesting and less common prepositions out there! Try a new one for a change, for more colorful prose (and see Leah’s list):
“Barbie got on the ship” vs. “Barbie went aboard the ship” or “Barbie ascended the gangplank” (here, there’s no preposition)
“Ken sat on top of the mountain” vs. “Ken sat atop the mountain“
“Curtis stood in front of me” vs. “Curtis stood opposite me“
For more on prepositions, see my post here.
5. Beware of “fillers”
Leah calls the following words “filters,” because “they place a barrier between your character and his or her thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. They create wordiness, too, and make readers focus on unnecessary words instead of what’s really going on”: feel, see, hear, know, hear, smell, realize, wonder, decide, notice, remember, think, wonder, watch, seem, note (he noted that), sounded like, able to (they were able to), and experience (she experienced something). Check these out:
“Bobby smelled the cloying scent of his mother’s perfume” vs. “The cloying scent of his mother’s perfume made Bobby’s nose twitch” or “The perfume’s scent overwhelmed the small room” or “Bobby sneezed from the cloying scent of his mother’s perfume.”
By the way, notice that I did not write “His mother’s perfume’s cloying scent.” In most cases, use just one possessive per clause.
“It looked like they were able to tie the knot tightly” vs. “They tied the knot tightly“
“She decided to go to the library” vs. “She went to the library“
“I wondered how the otter made the dam” vs. “How did the otter make the dam?“
“He appeared to be preoccupied by the amount of work he needed to do” vs. “His workload preoccupied him” or “He was preoccupied by the amount of work he needed to do” or “He had a lot of work” or “He was busy” (would be even better to Show instead of Tell here).
For more on sentence structure, see my post here.
Find ways to introduce previously unused – or underused – words into your writing. Use less fluff and fewer fillers. Watch out for repetition. Expand your preposition repertoire.
Committing to just a few of these tweaks will make your prose more descriptive and less average. Let me know in the Comments which ones you choose.