Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tightening up Your Writing

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

As a writer, I am pretty comfortable admitting what my strengths and weaknesses are.  I'll start with the positive:  Humor writing is my passion and when I'm in the "zone"; I can write essays, short-stories, human interest articles and even witty dialogue--sometimes effortlessly--because I'm comfortable writing in this genre.  I'm also very detailed oriented, which is something I rely on when I'm interviewing people for the magazine articles I write each month.  Third, I think my imagination is pretty darn colorful, so it's rare that I can't come up with an idea when I need to craft something interesting or even time sensitive.

Now for my weaknesses. I can be just as honest.  I overestimate how much I can complete before deadline; don't know all my grammar rules as well as I should; and finally--I'm much too wordy and often struggle with keeping my thoughts and my sentences as concise as they could be.  

One of my favorite ways to improve my writing is to find helpful articles and then save the thoughts that really hit home with me and that I find helpful.  Since tightening up my writing is always something I strive to improve, I just reviewed my article files and came across ten of my favorite tips that I gleaned from other writers over the years.  I hope you find them helpful as well:
1. Cut long sentences in two
I'm not talking about run-on sentences. Many long sentences are grammatically correct, but long sentences often contain several ideas, so they can easily lose the reader's focus because they don't provide a break, leading readers to get stuck or lose interest, and the reader might get bored and go watch TV instead.
See what I mean? If you spot a comma-heavy sentence, try to give each idea its own sentence.
2. Ax the adverbs (a.k.a. -ly words)
Adverbs weaken your copy, because these excess words are not adequately descriptive. Rather than saying the girl runs quickly, say she sprints. Instead of describing the cat as walking slowly, say he creeps or tiptoes. The screen door didn't shut noisily; it banged shut.
Find a more powerful verb to replace the weak verb + weak -ly adverb combo.
3. Replace negative with positive
Instead of saying what something isn't, say what it is. "You don't want to make these mistakes in your writing," could be better stated as, "You want to avoid these mistakes in your writing." It's more straightforward.
If you find negative statements in your writing that contain don't, shouldn't, can't, or another such word, find a way to rewrite them without the "not." That probably means you'll have to find a more powerful verb.
4. Replace stuffy words with simple ones
Some people think jargon makes their writing sound smart, but you know better. Good writing does not confuse readers. If they have to grab a dictionary to finish a sentence, your writing has room for improvement.
To get your point across, use familiar words. The English language has thousands of words. You can certainly find a shorter or more common word in your thesaurus than a jargony one.
5. Nix "that"
In about 5 percent of your sentences (total guess from the grammar police), "that" makes your idea easier to understand. In the other 95 percent, get rid of it. "I decided that journalism was a good career for me," reads better as, "I decided journalism was a good career for me."
6. Replace "thing" with a better word
Usually when we write "thing" or "things," it's because we were too lazy to think of a better word. In everyday life, we may ask for "that thing over there," but in your writing, calling anything a "thing" does not help your reader. Try to replace all "thing" or "things" with a more descriptive word.
7. Try really hard to spot instances of "very" and "really"
This is a difficult one to remember. I almost never get it right, until I go back through my copy, and the word jumps out at me, and then I change the sentence to, "This is a difficult one to remember." Because really, how much is that "very" helping you get your point across?
It doesn't make the task sound more difficult. Same thing with "really." It's not a "really" difficult tip to remember. It's simply a difficult tip to remember. Got it?
8.  Avoid "currently"
"Currently" is virtually always redundant. Don't write: "Tom Jones is currently a communications director." If Tom Jones is anything, he's that at that moment; you don't need "currently" to clarify. Just get rid of it.
9.  Eliminate "there is" or "there are" at the beginning of sentences
This is often a symptom of lazy writing. There are lots of better, more interesting ways to start sentences. Oops. See how easy it is to make this mistake? Instead of starting a sentence with "there is," try turning the phrase around to include a verb or start with you.
For example, replace the sentence above with, "Start your sentences in a more interesting way." If your copy includes a lot of phrases that begin with "there is" or "there are," put some time into rewriting them.
10. Steer clear of the -ing trap
"We were starting to …" or, "She was skiing toward …" Whenever you see an "-ing" in your copy, think twice about whether you need it—because you probably don't.
Instead, get rid of "were" or "was," then eliminate that "-ing" and replace it with past tense: "We started to …" or "She skied toward …" Pruning excessive "-ings" makes your writing clearer and easier to read.
How do you tighten up your writing?  If you have any other tips that can be added to this list, please comment and share!

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