I want to be a better writer in 2015. What would you suggest to get things started? And have you made any New Year’s Resolutions?
Wondering in Fresno
Thanks for writing, Fresno. And yes, I have made a New Year’s resolution: 2015 will be the year I put the gas nozzle back on the pump before driving away, every time. I also planned on rolling my 401(k) over into the Super Bowl pool and retiring early, but my financial adviser cautioned me against that. Ha! Just kidding. Like I have a financial adviser.
Can I help you start writing better? You bet.
The following five tips will improve your writing immediately.
1. Use gerunds sparingly.
You know what gerunds are — they’re the nouns we make by adding “ing” to a verb. For example:
- “Drinking during a business lunch is discouraged” — ‘drinking’ is the gerund
- “Dancing on the bar, apparently, is no better” — ‘dancing’ is the gerund
- “I plan on looking for a new job as soon as I post bail” — ‘looking’ is the gerund
Gerunds can be clunky parts of speech, especially if you’re prone to gerund overkill. Many times, writing can be made clearer and more concise by reconstructing the sentence. Look at these real-world examples:
Taking pride in your clothing and accessories shows you care.
should simply become,
Take pride in your clothing and accessories.
Carving out time to nurture that physical connection is important.
Carve out time to nurture that physical connection.
Gerunds aren’t wrong, they’re just not always good. Remember: In copy, every word should be indispensable, and gerunds often facilitate wordiness. When you proof your work, keep an eye out for these ‘ing’ words and see if you can’t say the same thing in fewer words by turning the noun-y gerund back into a verb.
2. Avoid starting sentences with ‘There is/are’ or ‘Here is/are’.
Why? Because it’s lazy, boring writing. Let’s take a look:
- There are many good reasons to drink on lunch.
- Here are three tips to help you get away with it.
- There are few things more important to a boss than sober employees.
Don’t get into the habit of using “there are” and “here is.” It’s not wrong, but it’s not strong and interesting writing, either. Rewrite these. You can usually do so easily and in fewer words. Take a look:
There is a sobriety test awaiting me when I get back to work.
A sobriety test awaits me when I get back to work.
There are several other employers who would love to hire me.
Several other employers would love to hire me.
3. Eliminate fluff.
I could write a whole post about fluff (aka wordiness), and one day I probably will. But for now, repeat after me:
I will write using as few words as possible. The words I do use will be precise and exact. Every word will count. I will cut what’s redundant or does not add value to my copy.
Qualifiers such as really, very, so, basically, pretty, virtually, definitely and rather are the biggest offenders here. They are weak words that add nothing of value to your sentences. For example:
It is really very important to not use fluff words because they hardly add any value to your work.
Don’t use fluff. They add no value to your work.
Don’t believe me? Ask Mark Twain:
“Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Besides, you can find a better adjective to describe what you’re trying to say:
- “It’s very hot” — It’s scorching.
- “He’s really sad” — He’s despondent.
- “She was so angry” — She was furious.
4. Avoid needless filler.
In a related resolution, stop using “filler” words and phrases that mean nothing. They are the empty calories of language, carried over from conversational English (where they also don’t belong). Take a look:
- “To be honest” / “Honestly” — No, lie to me.
- “Be that as it may” — What? Strike this.
- “Personally” — Well, on who else’s behalf would you be writing?
- “In my opinion” — Ditto. ^
- “In order to” — You don’t need the “in order” part. Just start with “to.”
- “Needless to say” — Then why say it?
- “In the event that” — ‘If.’ The word you’re looking for is “if.”
- “It is important to note” — Just note it then, friend.
In the words of Henry David Thoreau: Simplify, simplify, simplify. Proof your copy for empty phrases such as these and get rid of them.
5. Pay attention to ‘That’ vs. ‘Who’.
Dear Megan gets this relative pronoun error across her desk all the time. Here’s the rule:
That is for things. Who is for people.
“You remember Dear Megan, the chick that used to work here?”
The chick WHO used to work here. What about her?
“She was featured on “America’s Most Wanted,” the show about criminals that got away.”
Criminals WHO got away. Did they catch her?
“Nope. They think she’s living in Thailand with a 19-year-old houseboy named Lars.”
(Nothing to correct there ^ … I just like the idea of having a houseboy.)