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Ten tips for tighter, brighter writing

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BY JIM LOW
The difference between sparkling prose and dull verbiage lies as much in what you don’t say as what you do say. Weak words choke otherwise good writing like rock snot in a trout stream. I doubt you will find anything you don’t already know in the following tips, but sometimes we need reminders.
1. Eliminate unnecessary “that’s.” It’s surprising how insidious this article is. This is partly because “that” is common in the spoken word, as in, “Harry says that that stream is one that he could live without.” Three “that’s” might go unnoticed in spoken language, but they stick out like rocks in a riffle in a printed sentence. You might get away with two “that’s” in print, but it’s much cleaner to write, “Harry says he could live without Cedar Creek.” My good friend and renowned catfish writer Keith Sutton hunts down and kills every “that” he finds in his writing. His aversion to this particular four-letter word seems extreme to me, but you won’t find unnecessary articles clogging up the spring branches of his prose.
2. Fire lazy verbs. Indolent verbs include “is,” “put,” “went,” “said,” and other passive or minimally active words. When you find one of these in your prose, reach down into your vocabulary and extract more active versions, such as “remains” for “is,” “plunked down” instead of “put,” “sashayed” for “went” and “hissed,” “barked,” “murmured” or “growled,” rather than listless old “said.”
3. Eradicate worthless adjectives and adverbs. Leading offenders include “good,” “bad,” “real,” “really,” “very,” “actually,” “truly.” “incredible” and “unbelievable,” Besides being painfully hackneyed, the last two invite readers not to believe what you are telling them. These days, you don’t even need a thesaurus to upgrade adjectives and adverbs. When you find a lazy modifier in your writing, Microsoft Word allows you to right-click on it and hover over “synonyms” to find alternatives.
4. Drive a stake through the heart of “literally.” The only legitimate use of this word is to avoid confusion. For example, you might say that the impact of a steelhead’s strike literally jerked the rod from your hands. This seldom occurs, so you might want to let readers know that it did happen in this case.
Such correct usage is nearly impossible to find in outdoor literature. Instead, “literally” almost always is misused, because it is false. An example would be: “I was literally electrified by the steelhead’s strike.” No. You were not. You were figuratively electrified. Or, “Joe literally bit my head off when I offered to tie on a new leader for him.” No. He did not. He metaphorically bit your head off.
In these examples, “literally” was added for emphasis, with flagrant disregard for factuality. Using “literally” this way is lazy and stupid. Worse, it dulls the tool — the English language — we all rely on for our living. “Actually” and “really” are nothing more than limp-wristed versions of “literally” and should be avoided, not only because they usually are false, but also because they only junk up your prose. “Literally” adds nothing to the two previous example sentences, so drop it.
5. Peruse passive passages. Constructions where the subject receives action are perfectly appropriate at times. However, too often they betray sneaky writing or failure to do your homework. Sneakiness is to blame when you twist language to hide the identity of the guilty, as in, “My dog was hit in the butt by several pellets from a low shot.” Man up. Admit that you injured your dog! Insufficient research is responsible for sentences like, “Smith was tackled at the 50-yard line.” The writer couldn’t be troubled to discover who made the tackle, so he turned the sentence around bass-ackwards to disguise his willful ignorance.
6. Change up sentence structure. We all know that variety is the spice of life. Nevertheless, it’s surprisingly easy to get into ruts that dull your writing. Several years ago, someone mercifully pointed out that I had fallen under the spell of participial phrases. They didn’t call it that. I wouldn’t have known what they meant if they had. They simply observed that I opened paragraph after paragraph with sentences, like this one: “Knowing that the wind would be out of the west the next morning, Joe placed his deer stand on the east side of the field he planned to hunt.” There’s nothing wrong with that construction…until you read it for the 10th time.
The lesson here is to go back through your work to ensure that you have used a variety of sentence types to keep things interesting. Using the same structures over and over isn’t a personal style. It’s lazy.
7. Pay attention to sentence lengths. Variety is just as important in sentence length as it is in sentence structure. If you don’t believe it, take Item No. 6 above and edit it two ways. First, break up every sentence into as many smaller sentences as you can.
Using the above example: “Joe knew the wind would be out of the west. He planned to hunt the field the next day. He placed his stand on the east side of the field.”
Set that draft aside and go back to the original. Splice together the paragraph’s eight sentences into two or three.
I guarantee that reading either the short- or the long-sentence version will drive you nuts. Writing with too many short sentences is easy to read, but it’s choppy and dull. Text becomes incomprehensible when sentences are too few and too long. It’s also dull.
Take a look at Item No. 4 above. It contains 197 words in 18 sentences, for an average sentence length of 10.9 words. The longest is 32 words, the shortest two are one word each. As a rule of thumb, you should try to keep the average sentence length below 20 words in articles for a general readership. But don’t make every sentence 20 words, don’t shy away from long sentences if the ideas they contain are best presented that way, and look for opportunities to use short punchy sentences. They work!
8. Break up large text blocks with subheads. Large blocks of unbroken gray type are daunting to readers. Give them courage by breaking long articles into sections with subheadings. Better yet, if practical…
9. Separate complex topics into digestible bites with sidebars. Sidebars have several benefits:

  • They enable you to divide lengthy, complex articles into sub-topics that readers can digest easily.
  • Sidebars multiply designers’ options for attractive layouts that present subject matter understandably.
  • Separating secondary topics from the main thread permits very different treatment of diverse subject matter. You can have an evocative, literary narrative that draws in readers and festoon that central stem with technical information, without diluting either approach.

Sidebars are not an option in most news stories and in many other publications. But they are oft-neglected magic arrows in magazine writers’ quivers.
10. Make lists readable with bullets. Let’s say you need to list several items, each of which has two or more components. For example, if you want to list the top 10 turkey-harvest counties, along with the number of turkeys checked in each one, you could put it all in one paragraph, separating each item with a semicolon. However, this list is far easier to read as bullets, like this:

  • Franklin County, 1,212
  • Texas County, 1,022
  • Macon County, 993
  • Dallas County, 854
  • Boone County, 853

Admittedly, this is not always desirable. Bullets take more space than a paragraph of text. Base your choice on what serves readers best and fits your publication’s design parameters.
Reader convenience is the most important consideration in popular writing. The easier you make your prose to read, the less likely it is to end up in the round file. ♦
—Jefferson City, Mo., resident Jim Low has been a member since 1987. Low is news services coordinator for the Missouri Department of Conservation. Contact him at jimilow@aol.com.
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