As a journalist, I strive to make my writing as clear and as clean as possible. AP Style demands that pieces report as much news as possible in the least amount of words. Over the years, I’ve learned how to cut out words that clutter my sentences, replace passive voice with active voice and put the most important information first. These kinds of rules can be adapted for creative writing, which gives more licence for wordiness. The end objective for any kind of writing is to communicate clearly to your audience.
Here are some basic tips for how to improve your writing—no matter your genre.
1. Figure out your audience.
In rhetoric, not understanding your audience always translates to useless words. For whom are you writing? How do these people understand the world? The style and approach in a fashion magazine will differ dramatically from the style and approach in The New York Times.
Before you even begin writing, do some research. Read the pieces that have been successful in reaching your desired audience. Talk to the writers who consistently write for the audience. And make sure that you’re ready to reach them yourself.
2. Replace is/are verbs with action verbs.
In my freshman English class at Georgia State, the professor looked every student in the eye on the first day and established a course-long rule: no “be” verbs allowed in any paper, or points will be taken away. Fresh out of high school, we had no idea how to adjust to such a seemingly harsh rule. My first paper had red circles around every “be” verb—which turned out to be a lot. My last paper didn’t have one red circle at all.
This exercise turned out to be one of the best ones of my college career, because it became habit. I started looking for a way to rearrange my sentences to include action verbs. Doing this moves a sentence and makes the paper more interesting. Consider this example:
Johnny is playing a video game.
Now get rid of that “is”:
Johnny plays a video game.
The sentence sounds better. And it’s cleaner and easier to read.
3. Omit unnecessary words.
It’s surprising how many words we use to make sentences more interesting or engaging. Actually, using less words that make greater impact makes a sentence thrive. Take a sentence from your most recent piece and try to scale it down. Start by taking away useless adverbs like “very,” “totally,” “so,” “absolutely.” These kinds of words only clutter a sentence. Then replace your “be” verbs with action verbs.
Johnny is singing a very interesting song to tell a story about his mother, who is turning 50 today.
Look at the difference after getting rid of many of these words and rearranging a bit:
Since Johnny’s mother turns 50 today, he dedicated a song about her life.
4. Write in active voice.
Writers use passive voice to put emphasis on the victim of an action rather than the doer of an action. Sometimes (especially in journalism) this tactic is necessary, and it’s not grammatically incorrect. However, putting sentences in the active voice as often as possible keeps the message clear and keeps the sentence cleaner.
Passive: The nail was hammered by the construction worker.
Active: The construction worker hammered the nail.
5. Vary sentence structure
No one wants to read a piece with simple sentence after simple sentence. Throw in a complex, compound and compound-complex sentence. Create some variety so that it flows smoothly and sparks interest.
What are some ways you make your writing cleaner and more interesting?