Yesterday we discussed a few mechanical tricks to achieve “tight writing“: economical, readable, non-time-sucking style.
Some devices require a little more thought than the knee-jerk devices we just reviewed. These are compositional principles that you should internalize as you internalize the spelling of your own name.
Avoid the passive voice.
Verbs are words that express action, and they come in two voices, “active” and “passive.”
In the active voice, the action moves directly from the subject to the object of the action (the thing that is receiving the action). In our examples, we’ll color subjects red, verbs blue, and (when they exist) objects green:
Joe shot the bear.
Notice that the receiver of the action here appears as the object of the verb, and the thing that is doing the action is the verb’s subject.
In the passive voice, the action moves in the opposite direction: the thing that receives the action suddenly appears as the verb’s subject, and the doer of the action is hidden in a prepositional phrase starting with “by,” which may or may not be explicitly stated. Let’s color prepositional phrases purple.
The bear was shot [by Joe].
Because the passive voice always contains a past participle (a verbal that looks like it’s in the past tense, such as “shot”), many writers confuse it with the past tense. Remember, the way to tell whether a verb is in the passive voice is asking whether you can say the action was done by someone or something. If the phrase “by xxx” makes sense, then the verb is in the passive voice.
Fix it by converting it to the active voice, unless you’re using the passive voice for a specific reason. In most circumstances, the passive voice is indirect and verbose—that’s why it’s a classic feature of bureaucratese.
Use verbs conveying action, instead of verbs of being.
These are the verbs of being:
am is are was were be being been
They’re perfectly fine words, and you can’t get around using them now and again. But they lack punch. Good writers make their verbs carry the weight of their sentences—and a verb of being doesn’t carry much weight. Instead of having the subject of a sentence just “be,” have it “do.”
Here’s a sentence by a real journalist:
Energetic and stimulating, Ríos is a favorite among students.
It conveys a little meaning, but overall, it’s a big Z, dull as white rice. What on earth does “stimulating” mean, anyway? And that fellow Ríos is buried in the middle of the sentence.
We could rewrite it:
Students love the energetic and stimulating Ríos.
A little better—though insipid. The word “love” sounds too strong; it’s one of those words that have lost meaning from overuse. And the sentence still doesn’t show Ríos in action; it doesn’t show how the words “energetic” and “stimulating” define him.
My edited version—and I was perhaps guilty of going after this scribe with a heavy hand—read like this when it finally went to print:
Ríos projects a sense of excitement and energy that charms his students.
Does it improve on the original? Maybe so; maybe not. As you can see, though, an insipid sentence inspires an insipid response in the reader, something you decidedly do not want to inspire.
Write in complete sentences. . .most of the time.
A complete sentence has a subject and a verb. It will not harm your style or bore your reader if you include a subject and a verb in every sentence.
Beginning writers seem to think it’s arty to cast their thoughts in fragments. Maybe they think it sounds dramatic.
In fact, though, sentence fragments have a function: they’re like exclamation points. They’re emphatic. Too many exclamation points make your copy sound like you’re panting.
Good writers use sentence fragments in the same way the use exclamation points: sparingly. To pepper a piece of writing with either fragments or exclamation points is bad style.
Use Anglo-Saxon instead of Latinate words.
Prefer the short word to the long one. Some folks apparently believe that the more syllables a word has, the more important it sounds. Not so. Think about the most common mouth-fillers, and consider their plain-English alternatives:
indicate (say, imply)
This is what happens when you lard your language with important-sounding, Latinate words:
Members of the species homo sapiens who maintain an abode within a permanent or semipermanent structure composed at least partially or wholly of vitreous, transparent material would find it sagacious to refrain from hurling projectiles of natural material.
Figured out what this means yet?
People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. top
Cut the jargon.
Of AIDS, a high-ranking bureaucrat once said, “The disease has heterosexualized, proletarianized, and ruralized.” So has the plague of gobbledygook.
Jargon is mishmash language. It obscures meaning while it implies that the speaker is an insider. Don’t confuse this term with “shop talk.” Some terms that are current in specific trades and industries have real meaning and need not be translated into verbose alternatives. Doctors and nurses, for example, know what an “EMT” is, and they know what has happened when someone has administered CPR. No—we’re talking about phony shop talk, fake insider language, ersatz sophistication.
You can learn to recognize jargon, which, like computer viruses, evolves constantly. For example, suspect any word that ends in -ize or -ate:
Nouns and adjectives usually convert to jargon when they surface as brand-new verbs. Thus, the word “conference” becomes jargon when it’s used as a verb: “They conferenced about the computer program.” We’ve all heard these words several times too often:
Some jargon slithers into the language from baleful sources like admanese, educationese, political doublethink, and shop talk. They buzz interestingly but don’t mean much:
dog and pony show
revolution (as in “a marketing revolution”)
experience (as in “a dining experience”)
The word “multiple”—meaning “many” or “more than one”—has suddenly cropped up like chicken pox on a six-year-old’s belly. There is nothing wrong with the word “many.” And “more than one” is far preferable to the mumbly “multiple.”
Avoid clichés like the plague. . . .
Clichés are aging quips that have worn thin with overuse. You can usually tell if a golden phrase is hackneyed by saying the first few words aloud. If the last few follow automatically, you’ve got a cliché.
Raining cats and…
Filled to the…
Fit as a…
Use specific terms, not mush words.
Everyday language is awash in words devoid of solid meaning—such as “area” and “field.” That’s not my area; he’s an expert in the field. What do these things mean? Discipline? Concern? Meadow? Say what you mean!
Watch out for words like thing, idea, situation, experience, and group, which may mean anything from the Boy Scouts to a witches’ coven.
Use the right word.
Some words sound as though they mean something other than what they do mean.
fortuitous does not mean fortunate
appraised is not apprised
revenge is not to avenge
award is not to reward
verbal is not quite the same as oral
Euphemism is prettified speech that supposedly softens blunt reality (“she passed away”) or replaces frank words with allegedly acceptable language (“little girls’ room”). Don’t be crude, but don’t be nicey-nice, either. A task force is a committee, a recreation facility is a gym, and an environmental engineer in education is a school janitor. top
Cut redundancies.Any unnecessary word is redundant. In the patter of every day speech, we repeat ourselves all the time. For example:
hot water heater
one and only
more and more
This may be O.K. when you’re talking, but don’t do it in writing. You can edit the written word—and you should.
Sometimes writers indulge in larger kinds of redundancy. We may accidentally repeat a phrase, sentence, or paragraph that appeared earlier in the document. Or we may have been taught a particularly pernicious method of composition, the “Tell them what you’re going to say; say it; and tell them what you said” approach. This is plain bad writing—don’t do it. In writing (as opposed to public speaking), you need say it just once.
Avoid portmanteau sentences.
This term was coined by James Kilpatrick, after Lewis Carroll. It compares an overburdened sentence to a stuffed suitcase. Consider, for example, this astonishing example from Editor & Publisher, the trade journal of the newspaper industry—and ironically, a repository of bad writing:
Achorn suggested that women set the ground rules early and stick to them, not underestimate themselves or set their goals too low, be prepared for a certain amount of loneliness as they get to the top (it goes with the job), not carry a chip on their shoulders, take advantage of every educational and training opportunity, make sure their company has a sound policy against sexual harassment, not assume all women working with them are for them, be optimistic and not expect the workplace to solve all the problems and change cultural attitudes that have built up over the centuries.
Amazing. There was no need to recite every hackneyed aphorism the speaker uttered. But even if the advice were not trite, the sentence would still be overstuffed.
Use correct punctuation.
It’s does not mean its, and there’s no such thing as its’. Sentences slopped together with a comma instead of a conjunction or a semicolon just look…well, sloppy. Learn the difference between the plural and the possessive, and distinguish between the plural possessive and the singular possessive. You can learn these things. Get a second-hand freshman comp handbook to teach yourself details of punctuation and grammar that you might have missed in grade school, high school, or freshman composition. top
Remember to run the spellchecker as the second-to-last step in revising your work. But after that, always proofread with the brain! We’re still smarter than our computers.