Everyone can benefit from the occasional reminder of the principles of strong writing. Learn how to improve your writing style in 10 minutes or fewer with these 10 tips and exercises designed to make your writing more clear and concise.
1. Use Straightforward Language.
The most fundamental way to simplify writing is to use simpler words. Simple words—whether verbs, nouns, or adjectives—tend to have broader connotations, while complicated words have more specific meanings. Thus, you have a lower margin for error when using simpler words. Substitute a less familiar word with a more readily understandable one.
Rewrite the following sentences by expressing the ideas more simply:
The hurricane destroyed almost all structures along the coastline. Most homes were destroyed when water and wind joined forces to rip off roofs and collapse walls.
2. Trim Long Sentences.
One way to make your writing clearer is to limit the use of long sentences. The easiest way to do this is to divide a long sentence into two or more shorter sentences. Using shorter sentences does not mean that all sentences should be short. This would create a choppy style and is precisely where the art of writing comes into play. You must judge how to weave short sentences with longer ones, as well as how to use sentence variety.
Practice by breaking this long sentence into short ones:
Leadership—whether on the battlefield or in another area, such as politics or business—can take place either by example or command, and Alexander the Great, renowned in both history and legend, is a good example of a military leader who led by both command and personal example, whereas Gandhi and Mother Teresa, both famous for their devotion to great causes, provide instances of people leading primarily by the power of inspiring personal example.
3. Avoid Redundancies.
Tiresome writing occurs when a writer needlessly repeats a word or an idea. It's redundant, for example, to speak of a "beginner who lacks experience," because the word beginner already implies lack of experience. Redundant words or phrases are those that can be eliminated without changing the meaning of the sentence.
Rewrite the following sentence, cutting out redundancies:
Employees should be ready, willing, and able to adhere to the company dress code and not wear casual clothes when more formal attire is required.
4. Cut Excessive Qualification.
Occasional use of qualifiers will let the reader know you are reasonable, but using such modifiers too often weakens your writing. Excessive qualification makes you sound hesitant and adds bulk without adding substance.
Rewrite the following sentence, cutting out any excessive qualification:
There are very many reasons for the disparity of wealth among the world's nations.
5. Avoid Needless Self-Reference.
Avoid such unnecessary phrases as "I believe," "I feel" and "in my opinion." There is usually no need to remind your reader that what you are writing is your opinion.
Rewrite the following sentence, cutting out needless self-reference:
My own experience shows me that alcohol is a fine social lubricant.
6. Favor Active Voice.
In general, active voice is stronger than passive voice because the active voice is more direct and cuts down on the number of needed words. For example, the sentence "I loved Sally" is in the active voice and contains three words. "Sally was loved by me" is in passive and contains five words.
Rewrite the following sentence, replacing the passive voice with active words:
In premodern times, medical surgery was often performed by inexperienced and ill-equipped practitioners.
7. Favor Verbs, Not Nouns.
Nominalization is a fancy-sounding but important concept in writing. It describes the process by which verbs and adjectives are turned into nouns—for instance, "precision of measurement" is the nominalization of "precise measurement." Nominalizations make sentences weaker (and, usually, longer).
Improve the following sentence by replacing nouns and adjectives with verbs:
The difficulty of course work and the pressure of grading should not discourage students from pursuing new academic ventures.
8. Use Parallel Forms.
Parallelism in writing means expressing similar parts of a sentence in a consistent way. Elements alike in function should be alike in construction.
Parallelism is an important element of style because it builds clarity and power. Note the following sentence in parallel form: "In the summer before college, I waited tables, sold magazines, and even delivered pizzas." Now compare this with a nonparallel form: "In the summer before college, I was a waiter at a restaurant, pursued magazine sales and pizza delivery was my third job." Do you see how the parallel version reads more smoothly?
Now you try it: Rewrite the following sentence using a parallel structure:
All business students learn the basics of accounting, marketing fundamentals, and how to do manufacturing.
9. Be Specific.
One major difference between good writing and mediocre writing lies with the specific and concrete examples that you use (or fail to use). Vague language weakens your writing because it forces the reader to guess at what you mean instead of allowing the reader to concentrate fully on your ideas and style. Choose specific, descriptive words for more forceful writing.
Strengthen the following sentence by replacing vague language with specifics:
Mr. and Mrs. Jones make a good couple.
10. Avoid the Masculine Generic.
The masculine generic refers to the sole use of the pronoun he or him when referring to situations involving both genders. As much as you can, make an effort to avoid using he when referring to either a he or a she, and using him when referring to either a him or a her. Because 50 percent of any general readership is likely female, it's not only politically astute but fair-minded to avoid using the masculine generic and to alternate the pronouns or opt for gender-neutral language, instead.
Rewrite the following sentence in a gender-neutral way:
Today's chief executive must be extremely well rounded. He must not only be corporate- and civic-minded but also be internationally focused and entrepreneurially spirited.