All those ideas swimming in your head are finally on paper. The draft of the sales copy is saved in a file. You wrote your email. A chapter of the book has been written. You realize you’re not done, but it feels good to have completed the first draft.
Ready to make your copy 50 percent better? Thought I’d share some tips everybody can use to improve their writing today.
First, let’s take a look at two ways to describe a city’s landmark.
“The location is Western Australian. In the city center, just near a road, stood a monument about dead men and boys, some really young. A really hard time was had by them. It was a very long time before the community simply went back to a routine of school, work and marriage, but not seen by outsiders.”
Confused when reading the description? Already bored you to tears? Yes, it was mind-numbing to read.
Let’s see the description with exquisite detail. Read how M.L. Stedman portrayed the city’s landmark in her book, The Light Between Oceans, voted the Best Historical Novel by 1.5 million voters on Goodreads.
“… hard-bitten experiences that marked any West Australian town. In the middle of the handkerchief of grass near the main street stood the fresh granite obelisk listing the men and boys, some scarcely sixteen, who would not be coming back to plow the fields or fell the trees, would not be finishing their lessons, though many in the town held their breath, waiting for them anyway. Gradually, lives wove together once again into a practical sort of fabric in which every thread crossed and recrossed the others through school and work and marriage, embroidering connections invisible to those not from town.”
Now that’s an example of award-winning writing. How did she do that? We may not strive to win prizes for writing the best novel of the year — well, we may not all want to write a novel — but we can improve the writing we do, every day.
Six Tips to Makeover Your Writing
- Use the active voice
- Avoid the use of intensifiers
- Use definite, specific, and concrete language
- Create and use a personalized style sheet
- Read your copy aloud
- Ask another person to read your copy
TIP 1: Use the active voice
What is the active voice?
Let’s define it.
Active voice is an active sentence when the subject is doing the action. An example is “Ross runs the race.” Ross is the subject and he is doing the action. The race is the object of the sentence. Another example is Rachel loves ice cream.
What is the passive voice?
When passive voice is used, the target of the action moves to the subject position. Instead of “Lila runs the race,” I would say, “The race is run by Lila.” The subject of the sentence becomes the race, but it isn’t doing anything. The focus of the sentence has changed from Lila to the race.
To make “Rachel loves ice cream” passive, you would say, “Ice cream is loved by Rachel.” It doesn’t sound as compelling.
True or False. All sentences containing the form of “to be” are in passive voice. Answer: False. For example, the sentence “I am holding a book” is in active voice, but it uses the verb ”am” which is a form of “to be.” The passive form of the sentence would be “The book is being held by me.”
The subject, the book, is not doing anything in the sentence. It’s not taking action, thus, it’s passive. One clue your sentence is passive is the subject is not taking a direct action.
Notice how you become weary reading these sentences using the passive voice:
“It was determined by the organization that the study was inconclusive.”
“Groups help participants realize that most of their problems and secrets are shared by others in the group.”
Is the passive voice always a “no, no”?
Passive sentences are not incorrect. In fact, not every professional writer discourages their use. Fiction writer Patricia Wrede rants about “the infuriating obsession that some people have in banishing passive voice from fiction.” Passive voice has a purpose, such as when you want to hide who performed the action in the sentence, “The car was stolen.” It creates mystery. It can also change the focus of the sentence.
The active voice is an overall better choice to express your thoughts. Passive voice is often unclear to the reader. It’s usually wordy.
TIP 2. Avoid using intensifiers
According to William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style, the words “rather, very, little and pretty are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.” Other words include “really” and “just.” The words are like fillers of air in sealed bags of potato chips. The extra air adds volume, giving the appearance the potato chip bag is chockful, but once opened, the truth is revealed. The bag is 30 percent chips and 70 percent air.
Filler words take up space on the page, yet do not add clarity. Your copy will be tighter without them. When you need emphasis, use “terrified” to replace “very afraid” or “exhausted” instead of “very tired,” for example.
Niti Shah, senior marketing manager for HubSpot Asia, has a name for “really” and “simply” and “just.” She said they are “crutch words – a collection of words we fall back on when we’ve lost our footing while speaking.” Crutch words may be spoken in daily conversations, but your writing will be laborious to read if you overuse them.
“… we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then.” by Strunk & White in The Elements of Style
TIP 3. Use definite, specific, and concrete language
According to The Elements of Style, “prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.”
Ask yourself, “What meaning does the word choice add to the sentence?”
If it does not add meaning, delete it or replace it with concrete detail if more information is necessary.
Vague: The musical was awesome.
Improved: The performers in “The Book of Mormon” were extremely talented in singing, dancing and acting in front of a sold-out audience of 2,045 people.
Another suggestion is to add more identifying details.
General: That book was insightful.
Improved: William Finnegan, a staff writer at The New Yorker, wrote a memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, about his obsession with surfing all over the world since learning to surf as a young boy in the 1960s in California and Hawaii.
One of the most effective ways to create concrete language, especially in descriptive writing, is to include information based on the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
General: I love doing activities in the fall.
Improved: I love the crisp air, hearing the crunch, crunch sound while walking on fallen red, orange and russet leaves, and sipping on hot, spicy cider in autumn.
Tip 4: Create and use a personalized style sheet
Michelle Russell, a freelance writer and proofreader for over twenty years, says consistency is the “golden grammar rule for bloggers.” To ensure consistency throughout your copy, she recommends using a customized style sheet.
The running document keeps all of your key editorial decisions in one place. List the grammar rules you commonly misuse. List words you have difficulty spelling correctly. List the standards for the document: font type, font size, line spacing, headline sizes, and other guidelines.
- Is the product Supersweet or supersweet?
- Do you use it’s or its?
- What’s the best word choice: who or whom?
- Is the correct spelling occurence or occurrence?
On my stylesheet, I list the tips in this post. The words “very” and “really” appear too often in my drafts. I’ve given up spelling “phenomenon” without relying on my style sheet. And I won’t even share with you how many times I need to delete the word “so” in my copy.
The personalized style sheet is perfectly handy when you’ve been working on your document for hours and it becomes so familiar that simple errors are undetectable by your fuzzy eyesight.
Tip 5. Read your copy aloud
Your writing is like having a conversation with the reader. Reading the text aloud will show you what your reader experiences. Perhaps a paragraph is unclear or too wordy. Maybe “however” is a better word choice than the phrase “on the other hand.” Will everyone know BP means blood pressure?
If your text is difficult to read, like hearing a wrong note when someone is singing, it’ll be distracting to your reader.
Tip 6. Ask another person to read your copy
Ask someone to read the article, blog, paragraph, letter, sales copy, story or email.
Ask the person, “Does this document make sense to you?”
I recommend they proofread the copy for grammatical, style and misspellings by referring to your stylesheet. They will likely catch errors you’ve missed.
Asking someone to read the copy and give feedback will improve the readability of your words. You may need to rework some sentences or delete too lengthy prose. The document may need to be rewritten from the beginning. Not fun, but …
DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP!
You may rebuff this tip because you fear it will lengthen the writing process. Is it that important, you wonder? Yes, it is! Won’t you be glad to know the awkward phrases and grammatical errors before you press publish? Then you can rewrite the draft and prevent an embarrassing situation in front of your boss or client.
Six Tips to Makeover Your Writing
Use the active voice
The reader does not enjoy reading writing in passive voice. (Passive form: Writing in passive voice is not enjoyed by the reader.)
Avoid the use of intensifiers
“Just, little, pretty, rather, really, simply, and very” are words often used incorrectly or overused. See how your copy stands without them.
Use definite, specific, and concrete language
Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, and the concrete to the abstract.
Create and use a personalized style sheet
It’s a golden grammar rule to ensure consistency in all printed materials, online documents, blog posts, company newsletters and emails.
Read your copy aloud
You’ll notice the unclear messages with a reader’s point of view.
Ask another person to read your copy
Ask this person, “Does this document make sense to you?”
Refer to these 6 tips regularly. When you do, the email you send to your boss today or the sales copy you submit to the client next week will ensure you communicate better to your reader.