Anyone who has gone through the ecstasies and agonies of writing an essay knows the satisfaction (and sometimes the sadness) of finishing. Once you've done all the work of figuring out what you want to say, arriving at an arguable and interesting thesis, analyzing your evidence, organizing your ideas, and contending with counter-arguments, you may feel that you've got nothing left to do but run spell-check, print it out and await your professor's response. But what spell- check can't discern is what real readers might think or feel when they read your essay: where they might become confused, or annoyed, or bored, or distracted. Anticipating those responses is the job of an editor—the job you take on as you edit your own work.
As you proceed, remember that sometimes what may seem like a small problem can mask (be a symptom of) a larger one. A poorly-worded phrase—one that seems, say, unclear or vague—may just need some tweaking to fix; but it may indicate that your thinking hasn't developed fully yet, that you're not quite sure what you want to say. Your language may be vague or confusing because the idea itself is. So learning, as Yeats says, to "cast a cold eye" on your prose isn't just a matter of arranging the finishing touches on your essay. It's about making your essay better from the inside (clarifying and deepening your ideas and insights) and from the outside (expressing those ideas in powerful, lucid, graceful prose). These five guidelines can help.
1. Read your essay aloud. When we labor over sentences, we can sometimes lose sight of the larger picture, of how all the sentences sound when they're read quickly one after the other, as your readers will read them. When you read aloud, your ear will pick up some of the problems your eye might miss.
As you read your essay, remember the "The Princess and the Pea," the story of a princess so sensitive she was bothered by a single pea buried beneath the pile of mattresses she lay upon. As an editor, you want to be like the princess—highly alert to anything that seems slightly odd or "off" in your prose. So if something strikes you as problematic, don't gloss over it. Investigate to uncover the nature of the problem. Chances are, if something bothers you a little, it will bother your readers a lot.
2. Make sure all of your words are doing important work in making your argument. Are all of your words and phrases necessary? Or are they just taking up space? Are your sentences tight and sharp, or are they loose and dull? Don't say in three sentences what you can say in one, and don't use 14 words where five will do. You want every word in your sentence to add as much meaning and inflection as possible. When you see phrases like "My own personal opinion," ask yourself what "own personal" adds. Isn't that what "my" means?
Even small, apparently unimportant words like "says" are worth your attention. Instead of "says," could you use a word like argues, acknowledges, contends, believes, reveals, suggests, or claims? Words like these not only make your sentences more lively and interesting, they provide useful information: if you tell your readers that someone "acknowledges" something, that deepens their understanding of how or why he or she said that thing; "said" merely reports.
3. Keep in mind the concept of le mot juste. Always try to find the perfect words, the most precise and specific language, to say what you mean. Without using concrete, clear language, you can't convey to your readers exactly what you think about a subject; you can only speak in generalities, and everyone has already heard those: "The evils of society are a drain on our resources." Sentences like this could mean so many things that they end up meaning nothing at all to your readers—or meaning something very different from what you intended. Be specific: What evils? Which societies? What resources? Your readers are reading your words to see what you think, what you have to say.
If you're having trouble putting your finger on just the right word, consult a thesaurus, but only to remind yourself of your options. Never choose words whose connotations or usual contexts you don't really understand. Using language you're unfamiliar with can lead to more imprecision—and that can lead your reader to question your authority.
4. Beware of inappropriately elevated language—words and phrases that are stilted, pompous, or jargony.Sometimes, in an effort to sound more reliable or authoritative, or more sophisticated, we puff up our prose with this sort of language. Usually we only end up sounding like we're trying to sound smart—which is a sure sign to our readers that we're not. If you find yourself inserting words or phrases because you think they'll sound impressive, reconsider. If your ideas are good, you don't need to strain for impressive language; if they're not, that language won't help anyway.
Inappropriately elevated language can result from nouns being used as verbs. Most parts of speech function better—more elegantly—when they play the roles they were meant to play; nouns work well as nouns and verbs as verbs. Read the following sentences aloud, and listen to how pompous they sound.
He exited the room. It is important that proponents and opponents of this bill dialogue about its contents before voting on it.
Exits and dialogues work better as nouns and there are plenty of ways of expressing those ideas without turning nouns into verbs.
He left the room. People should debate the pros and cons of this bill before voting.
Every now and then, though, this is a rule worth breaking, as in "He muscled his way to the front of the line." "Muscled" gives us a lot of information that might otherwise take several words or even sentences to express. And because it's not awkward to read, but lively and descriptive, readers won't mind the temporary shift in roles as "muscle" becomes a verb.
5. Be tough on your most dazzling sentences. As you revise, you may find that sentences you needed in earlier drafts no longer belong—and these may be the sentences you're most fond of. We're all guilty of trying to sneak in our favorite sentences where they don't belong, because we can't bear to cut them. But great writers are ruthless and will throw out brilliant lines if they're no longer relevant or necessary. They know that readers will be less struck by the brilliance than by the inappropriateness of those sentences and they let them go.
Copyright 1999, Kim Cooper, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
Writers rarely spit out their best copy on the first draft. (If you meet a writer who claims to have the secret for doing so, please let the rest of us know.) First drafts — and second drafts and sometimes thirds — exist to hash your ideas out on paper. After you’ve revised your book, story, blog post or article until you can revise no more, you just hand it off to your editor to clean up, right?
Well, that’d be ideal. But most of us don’t have the luxury of hiring an expensive editor to review our personal blog post. And since procrastination is the writer’s best friend, you probably don’t have time to even ask a fellow writer pal take a quick peek for errors.
And so, it falls to you to be your own editor. Is it really possible edit your own work when all the words you just finished writing are so precious? Yes! It can be done — and for the sake of making your writing stand out, it must be done. Grab your red pen, pull up your most recently saved draft, and get to work with these 25 tips to tighten your own copy.
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 perhaps 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. Axe the adverbs (a.k.a. -ly words)
Adverbs weaken your copy because these excess words are not truly 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. Stick to one voice
Sometimes it’s necessary to use both first and second person, but that can be jarring for readers. For example, you might start your introduction talking about yourself, then switch halfway through the piece and start addressing the reader. Try to stick to “I” voice or “you” voice throughout one piece of writing.
And if you must switch, start with one and finish with the other. Don’t move back and forth between the two. Your readers will get lost.
4. Remove extra punctuation
A powerful hyphen here and a thought-provoking semicolon there can be effective. But a piece of writing littered with all sorts of punctuation — parentheses, colons, ellipses, etc. — doesn’t flow well.
Oftentimes, you can eliminate these extra pieces of punctuation with commas or by ending a sentence and starting a new one — and that makes your writing that much stronger.
5. 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 will probably mean you need to find a more powerful verb.
6. 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 need to grab a dictionary to finish a sentence, your writing has room for improvement.
To get your point across, use words people are familiar with. The English language has thousands of words. You can certainly find a shorter or more common word in your thesaurus than a jargony one.
7. Remove redundancies
You don’t need to say the exact same thing with two words. Did you catch the redundant words in that sentence? Here’s a better version: you don’t need to say the same thing with two words.
Brand new, advance planning, basic necessities… the list of these common phrases is longer than this blog post. Check out About.com’s 200 Common Redundancies and then start snipping!
Sometimes sneaky redundancies are separated by an “and.” If you say your sentences are straightforward and to-the-point, they are neither. You don’t need both words. Your sentences are straightforward. Or, your sentences are to-the-point.
8. Reduce prepositions
Though prepositions (of, in, to, for, etc.) are helpful little words, they make sentences more lengthy because they cannot stand alone. Prepositions need lots of friends. By cutting the preposition and the words that follow, you can cut three, four or even five words. Sometimes a prepositional phrase can be replaced with just one more direct word, or cut completely.
An easy way to cut prepositions is to look for opportunities to make something possessive. The car of your neighbor is really just your neighbor’s car.
9. Cut “in order to”
You never need it. If you’re going to the kitchen in order to make a sandwich… Your sentence could be tighter. Because you’re really going to the kitchen to make a sandwich.
That “in order to” makes it take a millisecond longer to arrive at the meaty part of the sentence, which means your story is dragging more than it needs to.
10. Don’t use “start to”
Did you start to walk the dog, or did you walk the dog? Is the car starting to roll down the hill, or is it rolling down the hill? “Start to” is a more difficult phrase to deal with than “in order to,” because sometimes you do need it. But more likely than not, you don’t
Rather than making “start” the active verb, use the verb that’s actually more active — like walking or rolling — to tell your story.
11. Nix “that”
In about five 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.”
12. 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 every day 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.
13. Try really hard to spot instances of “very” and “really”
This is a very 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?
14. Make your verbs stronger
“Make” is sometimes used in the same way as “start to,” in place of what could be a stronger verb. For example, I first titled this post, I wrote “25 ways to make your copy stronger.” When I re-read it, I realized the verb wasn’t strong. I’d used “make” as the verb, when it doesn’t tell the reader much at all. So I changed the title to “25 ways to strengthen your copy.” Eventually I realized “tighten” was an even better verb.
15. Ditch the passive voice
As this UNC handout explains, using the passive voice isn’t really wrong. But whenever you have the chances to make your writing clearer, you should — and avoiding the passive voice is one of those instances.
I know the passive voice when I see it, but I’m bad at explaining it, so I’m going to leave that to Grammar Girl. Explaining grammar is her specialty.
16. Refer to people as “who” not “that”
John is the guy who always forgets his shoes, not the guy that always forgets his shoes. It’s easy to make this mistake because that has become acceptable in everyday conversations. But it’s more noticeable when it’s written down.
17. 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.
18. 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 most of them.
19. Match up your bullet points
Bullet points are a popular and effective way to organize complex ideas. Just make sure your bullets correspond to one another.
Too often, writers mix and match mistakes with what you should do or make transition to shoulds halfway through the post — which only confuses the reader.
If your piece is called 3 Career Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make, here’s a bullet point that works:
Forgetting to tailor your resume each time you apply for a job
Here’s one that doesn’t work (because it’s not actually a mistake — the writer inadvertedly switched to what you should do):
Make sure you tailor your resume
Often you can turn any idea into a tip by adding a verb. For example: “Remember that sitting on your head helps you write better.” Make your bullet points consistent and your writing will read more smoothly.
20. Use contractions
Which sounds more personable: I am heading to the market that is close to my house, or I’m heading to the market that’s close to my house? Contractions make your writing sound friendlier, like you’re (not you are) a real person. And that makes it easier to connect with readers.
Contractions can also make your post easier to read and comprehend. So go out of your way to include them in your posts! Your editor will thank you.
21. 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.
22. Check your commas with that and which
When used as a descriptor, the word “which” takes a comma. But the word “that” doesn’t. For example: “We went to the house that collapsed yesterday” or “We went to the house, which collapsed yesterday.” Confused about when to use “that” vs. “which?” Grammar Girl offers a great explanation.
23. Replace “over” with “more than” for numbers
Over 200 people did not like your Facebook page — more than 200 people did. Of course, everyone will know what you mean if you use “over.” But using “more than” is one of those little details that will help your writing shine.
24. Hyphenate modifiers
Whenever you modify a noun with more than one word, you need a hyphen. Lots of people don’t follow this rule, so it’s a great way to show you actually walk the walk. That means you need a hyphen if you’re writing about full-time work.
But you don’t need one if you’re working full time. Got it? The exception: No need to hyphenate modifiers that end in “ly.” Those are OK on their own. So your newly hired employee doesn’t need that hyphen.
25. Identify your tells
No matter how good of a writer you are, when you sit down to write a first draft, you have a tendency to spit out sentences in a certain way or use certain words. The more familiar you become with editing your own copy, the more quickly you should be able to pick up on your tells. And, the more ruthless you can be to eliminate them from your writing.
“Start to” plagued me while writing my book; I made the “start to” mistake again and again. But once I knew to look for it during revisions, I was able to correct it. (Hint: If this is a problem for you, try using Word’s search function to look for “start.” You’ll catch each one, so you can evaluate them individually.)
Some of these tips originally ran on Copyblogger and AlexisGrant.com.
Filed Under: Craft
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