Lightning Lessons in Writing: How to Improve Overnight

This “lightning lesson” in grammar, a super short but very helpful lesson on how to write clearly and correctly, won’t make you the next Shakespeare or Hemingway.  It will, however, give your writing the edge it needs to be taken seriously.  It’s not any one gift or tool that a writer has that makes them great; it’s all the little things that they do really well that add up to great writing.  Here are some principles to keep in mind as you construct your next literary masterpiece.

  • English sentence structure goes like this: subject, verb, object. Keep it simple.
  • Keep your verbs in the sentence close to the subject performing it. That way, readers won’t get confused as to who is doing what.  The more distance between the verb and the subject, the more likely readers will become confused about what’s going on in the sentence.
  • Likewise, keep modifiers close to the words they modify; when writers fail to do this we call it a dangling modifier.
    • Charles ran after the runaway car moving swiftly
      • Is the car or Charles moving swiftly
    • Charles swiftly ran after the runaway car
      • These are terrible examples, I know, but they make the point. The further the distance between a modifier and the word it modifies the more likely it is to cause confusion in readers.
  • Avoid the passive and use the active voice. I was in grad school before someone taught me what teachers meant by this, but it’s advice to live by.  Passive voice is anything that uses a form of the verb “to be”.  I was, he is, they are, etc.  Instead, choose active verbs and let the verb do the heavy lifting for you.
    • I was hit by the ball
      • Passive voice. The ball is performing the action (hitting) but it is in the place in the sentence where we usually find the object.  In longer sentences this can confuse readers
    • The ball hit me
      • In this case, the ball is now performing the action in its rightful place. No confusion as to who or what is performing the action
    • How to fix this: in shorter sentences it can be as simple as changing the order of the words. In more complex sentences, a writer may have to completely reorganize the sentence, including choosing new verbs and subjects.  It can be difficult at first, but mastery of this tool is essential to be a successful writer.  Or should I say, Successful writers must master this technique.  See what I did there?
    • Of course, passive voice is sometimes warranted. For instance, if the object, not the verb, needs to be stressed.  Suppose an old woman gets jumped and has her wallet stolen.  The evening news can run two headlines
      • A gang beat up and robbed an elderly woman at gun point last night.
      • An elderly woman was robbed and brutally beaten at gun point last night by gang members.
        • Sentence one is active voice, but because our sympathies ought to be with the elderly woman, the passive voice is the more appropriate choice in this instance.
  • Vary your sentence length and don’t repeat the same words or phrases repeatedly unless it’s for effect. If all your sentences are short, your syntax will come off choppy.  If all your sentences run to exhaustion, you risk confusing your audience or losing their attention by packing too much information into each thought.
  • In sentences, old information first, new information last. The exception, of course, is the topic sentence, as that sentence lays out the whole point of the paragraph.  Otherwise, good writers know that subsequent sentences often refer to some old knowledge the reader is already familiar with from the previous sentence before moving on to something new.
  • Don’t split infinitives. An infinitive is the “to” form of a verb: to jump, to fly, to swim, etc.   So you shouldn’t write, “to quickly run home”, you should write, “to run home quickly”.
    • Of course, there are exceptions. Imagine if your favorite sci-fi series narrator said, “to go boldly where no one has gone before”, instead of “to boldly go”.  Rules were made to be broken.  But this is also for effect.  On the one hand, the writers were bold in breaking that grammar rule at that particular moment or phrase.  On the other hand, to boldly go sounds better, doesn’t it?
  • Use fewer words whenever possible. It’s almost always better.
    • You can do this by cutting unnecessary words from your lexicon. The term “very” almost never has to be used.  Very hot?  Scorching.  Hot and Humid?  Sultry.  Very fast?  Rapid.  And the list goes on.
    • Also, the word “just” can be cut entirely. We just went for a walk / We went for a walk.  You just have to listen / You have to listen.  You should only use the word just when it refers to an act of justice.  “It is just and right to honor your promises.”
  • Edit, revise and rewrite like there’s no tomorrow.  It’s what writing is all about.

These are some basic guideline to help improve your writing.  Rules were meant to be broken, but writers need to know that there is always a purpose in breaking the rules.  Rules are not broken habitually and rampantly.  Being mindful of these principles will improve your writing and aid you in taking it to the next level.

And don’t forget to get out there.

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