How to improve your writing – 2

This the second of my occasional posts on writing simply and clearly, and here we consider how to tidy up a piece of text once you’ve got something written down. Examples are drawn from How to improve your writing 1 – the first part of this two-parter.

Work out what your verbal tics are, and edit your text to remove them

Make this a habit.   Here are some examples:

  1. Remove all adverbs and adjectives and see what is left
  2. Adverbs and adjectives are words that describe or qualify other words (the red balloon burst loudly). The following text won a Golden Bull in 2008 from the Plain English campaign:

    ‘Our goal at Balfour Beatty is to deliver consistent, long-term growth to our shareholders ... By becoming the partner of choice tosophisticated owners in our chosen disciplines and geographies, we believe we will achieve secure, industry best margins in ourcontracting activities and substantial, sustainable equity returns from our long-term investment portfolio.’

    As you can see, this isn’t much better but it has helped us work out if the text contained anything of substance and how to re-organise it.

    Our goal is to deliver long term growth to our shareholders, and we believe we’ll achieve this by becoming the partner of owners in our disciplines and geographies.

    Sometimes, when you do this you’ll discover that what you’ve written goes round in circles.  If it does, cut it out.

  3. Turn the passive voice into the active voice.
  4. Making up an example was quicker than finding one.  The passive voice is considered to be particularly bad in process documentation because it is easy to forget about an actor who is never mentioned.

    This becomes:

    I found it quicker to make up an example than find one.  I particularly dislike it when a writer or analyst uses the passive voice in process documentation (the mat is sat upon) because I have no idea who is doing the sitting (the cat, presumably).

  5. Look out for and eliminate any personal tics you may have.
  6. I have a fondness for -ing verbs.  Here are some that I’ve cut out from an earlier version of this post:

    This is about getting across information or ideas  …  anything which is just expanding or supporting the main points … the most important point you are making …  preparing our audience with subsidiary points and building up to a conclusion …

    You have already seen how I got rid of those.

Don’t worry that you’ll  squeeze all the character out of your writing because you won’t: it is more important to be clear than quirky and you can be quirky and clear at the same time.

Have fun.

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9 responses to “How to improve your writing – 2

  1. And this is why I will never do writing professionally. Far too much like hard work. Revision? Pah!

    I like the adjectives thing, but you’ll prise the passive from my cold dead hands. Sorry, the passive will be prised…

  2. An additional morsel of advice is reduce the number of syllables you utilise where feasible.

    Or: don’t use long words if you don’t need to.

    If it’s a technical essay, you may have to use polysyllabic jargon, but even if it is, keep it to a minimum.

    “Utilise” is one of my all-time bugbears. What is the POINT of that “tili” in the middle? It adds almost nothing, except a sense of pompous self-congratulation.

  3. Interesting but i have to disagree about what you say about the “passive voice”. The excellent Language Log blog has posted on this topic over and over again (if it were up to me every English speaker in the world would have to read Language Log).

    The passive is appropriate when we want to focus on the person/thing that is affected by an action/event rather than the person/thing who acts/causes an event to happen. So for example: “the woman was knocked down by a bus” is a lot more natural than “a bus knocked down the woman”. It’s true we may omit the agent for dubious reasons, such as the desire to avoid implicating ourselves, but equally we may omit it because it detracts from the main focus of the sentence: “Person X has been assassinated.” This grabs the reader’s attention and then, in subsequent sentences, we provide information about who did it, where, how, why, etc.

  4. My other issue with the modern day obsession with using the active voice is that it increases information redundancy, rather than decreasing it, which is interesting because it flies in the face of the overall idea that we should take out unnecessary detail.

    For example, take a scientific paper. In the old days people might have said something like “the results were analysed” now they say… “we… analysed the results”. They then repeat this information: “we” did this and “we” did that throughout the paper. If you think about it is obvious (a) the implicit agent in this context is always going to be the scientists writing the paper. So it’s actually unnecessary to keep specifying the agent. Of course, if another person/group has been involved at some point they will have to specified, but that can be done easily using either voice.

    It’s fascinating to compare the current ideas about always specifying the subject/agent in English with those of Japanese, where i was taught that it is considered better style to omit information that can be inferred.

  5. Hi eyoki, and welcome to my blog.

    My particular loathing for the passive voice stems directly from my life and times as a Business Analyst. Being a BA involves describing processes, and all to often people use the passive voice to hide the fact they don’t know who is performing a particular step in the process. I did it myself this week: ‘the evidence is reviewed’… etc. This is fine in the early stages, but it causes problems when a process design is signed off as complete because no-one’s noticed it is in fact riddled with ambiguity.

    See my scars, share my pain.

    However you and Sol both argue the point very well, and I have to accept that my dislike of the passive has probably become irrational.



  6. Actually, I am against the use(age) of the passive if it’s done badly, and I can sympathyse with those who, forced to read essay after essay with teeth gratingly bad examples of it, just decided that to hell with it, it would be easier just to do away with it altogether. There are, after all, people who have been educated beyond their capacity to think (or write) and us(tilis)e techniques like this to hide such a fact. Not very successfully, of course, otherwise it wouldn’t be such a pain to wade through.

    But at least then it’s easier to say ‘this argument doesn’t make sense’ as opposed to ‘this argument is so badly written that we’ll give you the benefit of the doubt as to its actual content’.

    But in all other respects I do agree with euoki and it is a point well made indeed.

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