For many of us these days, our writing practice is limited to quick text messages, hasty tweets, and less-than-inspired Facebook statuses.
Now we can’t all be Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, but regardless of whether you’re writing a manuscript or an email to your boss, mastering the art of good writing can help you become a stronger, more effective communicator.
A Guide to Concise Writing
Please enjoy this exclusive excerpt from The Art of Writing, the ultimate guide to elegant and effective writing for every kind of writer.
Economy in Writing
Economy is a matter of using the fewest words to produce the most meaning. It is often the excess of words and ideas, not the lack of them, that dilutes the power of your writing.
When simplifying a sentence, it helps to follow a methodical process similar to mathematical proofing.
When mathematicians approach an equation, they attempt to solve it one step at a time, showing all their work in a logical, descending sequence. By applying the same technique, writers can take a structured approach to artistic writing.
Tip 1: Eliminate Crutch Words
Crutch words commonly manifest themselves in spoken English. Sometimes called “filler words,” crutch words are meaningless parcels of language that writers and speakers alike tend to inadvertently pepper across every sentence.
Artistic writers should be able to express themselves without the need for filler language. To write naturally is not to write carelessly, but to write in a way that best reflects your values, aspirations, and ideals. Crutch words rarely clarify or improve your writing, nor do they facilitate expression.
- Jaxon would definitely never do that.
- Jaxon would never do that.
- Macy actually didn’t know what was happening.
- Macy didn’t know what was happening.
- Richard literally never got tired of playing hockey.
- Richard never got tired of playing hockey.
Tip 2: Avoid Repetition
A tautology is an unnecessary (and often unintentional) repetition of meaning. Tautologies, if not for rhetorical effect, must be avoided. They have no place in artistic writing.
- He was met with an unexpected surprise.
- He was met with a surprise.
- Perhaps it will forever remain an unsolved mystery.
- Perhaps it will forever remain a mystery.
- It is estimated that two out of every one hundred people, or 2 percent of the world population, has green eyes.
- It is estimated that 2 percent of the world population has green eyes.
Tip 3: Write with Conviction
Qualifiers are words or phrases whose purpose is to limit or enhance an adjective or adverb’s meaning.
When used sparingly, qualifiers can improve the quality and precision of your message. However, qualifiers are often abused in writing, strewn across every sentence with the hope of creating a more nuanced piece of work.
Rather, the inclusion of too many qualifiers or weasel words is the ultimate token of the immature writer and signals a lack of conviction. Use qualifiers only when strictly necessary!
- It was a rather sunny day.
- It was a sunny day.
- He was quite tired.
- He was tired.
If you think a qualifier is necessary for emphatic reasons, it may be better to change the qualified word entirely.
- The dessert was very tasty.
- The dessert was scrumptious.
Tip 4: Streamline Your Writing
Transition words create bridges between ideas in your writing, linking them together and strengthening their connections. These words are useful but must be employed heedfully and skillfully.
When used unnecessarily, transition words become pointless flourishes. Thus, writers should try to streamline their writing in such a way that each sentence leads naturally to the next, eliminating the need for transition words in most cases.
- Although writing is hard, mastery can be achieved with structured practice. Therefore, by consistently trying to improve your writing, you will become a better writer.
- Mastery in writing can be achieved with structured practice. By consistently trying to improve your writing, you will become a better writer.
- An outline is an essential part of the writing process. Nevertheless, it is one that many writers overlook. More accurately, it is one that many writers ignore.
- An outline is an essential part of the writing process that many writers ignore.
Tip 5: Eliminate Unnecessary Uses of Which is and That
The phrase which is is frequently unnecessary and can often be omitted from a sentence without sacrificing any meaning.
- Katherine hates shopping during the Christmas season, which is the busiest shopping season of the year.
- Katherine hates shopping during the Christmas season, the busiest shopping season of the year.
- Paul’s favorite toy, which is a teddy bear, is beginning to fall apart.
- Paul’s favorite toy, a teddy bear, is beginning to fall apart.
That is another word sprinkled recklessly and unnecessarily over many pieces of writing. It is a writer’s nightmare to find every unnecessary instance of that after completing a work. Therefore, it’s best to monitor your usage as you write.
- Matt was surprised that Olivia agreed to dance with him.
- Matt was surprised Olivia agreed to dance with him.
- The word that is abused so often that it eventually becomes an annoyance.
- The word that is abused so often it eventually becomes an annoyance.
Tip 6: Write in the Positive
Double negatives force your readers to uncoil otherwise simple sentences. Remember: Two negatives make a positive. Keep in mind, however, that double negatives often have a place in poetry and rhetoric.
- It wasn’t that Sam didn’t care about school. He just didn’t enjoy it.
- Sam cared about school but didn’t enjoy it.
- Katherine was not unconvinced by his argument.
- Katherine was convinced by his argument.
- It was not uncommon for James to smoke a cigarette after work.
- It was common for James to smoke a cigarette after work.
Tip 7: Use Punctuation Sparingly
Writers must be economical in more than their use of words, for words are only the building blocks of language. Writers must also be economical in their use of punctuation.
Like words, punctuation marks must be used sparingly and only when strictly necessary, because humans can only account for so much information at a time.
The more commas and semicolons you include in a sentence, the more knots you’re forcing the reader to unwind to grasp your message. Limit the number of punctuation marks in your writing for a cleaner, more effective piece of prose.
- Jonathan didn’t like reading; he thought it was a waste of time.
- Jonathan didn’t like reading because he thought it was a waste of time.
- Melody wanted to be either of two things: a nurse, or a dentist.
- Melody wanted to be either a nurse or a dentist.
- It soon became clear: Gary wasn’t his friend anymore.
- It soon became clear Gary wasn’t his friend anymore.
Tip 8: Prefer the Active Voice to the Passive Voice
As a rule of thumb, use the active voice for a cleaner, more powerful message.
What Is the Active Voice?
The active voice is direct and vigorous. In the active voice, the subject of a sentence performs the action.
- Martha kissed Gordon.
- The police are performing an investigation.
- The man waved to the little girl.
What Is the Passive Voice?
The passive voice is the active voice’s shy sister. In the passive voice, the subject receives the action.
- Gordon was kissed by Martha.
- An investigation is being performed by the police.
- The little girl was waved to by the man.
When to Use Active Voice and Passive Voice
The active voice brings a sense of control and forcefulness to your writing. For this reason, it is often preferred in day-to-day writing and in journalism. The active voice is best used when answering a question, addressing an issue, or whenever candidness is your top priority.
- (Active) I didn’t eat breakfast yesterday.
- (Passive) Breakfast was not eaten by me yesterday.
- (Active) The child did not pull the fire alarm.
- (Passive) The fire alarm was not pulled by the child.
- (Active) Randy didn’t enjoy Sunday mornings.
- (Passive) Sunday mornings were not enjoyed by Randy.
However, some writers make the mistake of avoiding the passive voice altogether. Doing this will make your writing sound monotonous, prescriptive, and downright awkward.
Do not be afraid to use the passive voice, for one voice is not decisively better than the other. The passive voice is best used when the writer wants to emphasize the recipient of the action, not the performer of the action.
- (Passive) This house was built by my grandfather.
- (Active) My grandfather built this house.
- (Passive) The building was engulfed by a fire.
- (Active) Fire engulfed the building.
- (Passive) The ball was caught by Tony.
- (Active) Tony caught the ball.
Try these passive voice exercises for extra practice identifying the passive voice and rewriting sentences in the active voice.
Grab Your Copy
Want to learn more? Order your copy of Peter Yang’s The Art of Writing and learn how you can become a better writer today.