I read a great deal every day--both for business and pleasure. It's often hard for me to suppress the Internal Copy-Editor as I read. I encounter sentences and phrases that could be better. Sometimes it's one small thing that makes the difference between great writing and "meh" writing.
Here are my Top Five Tips for keeping the "meh" out of your prose.
1) Avoid the passive tense. This is the most common problem I see. The passive tense has no authority. It also uses more words, and thus clouds up writing. There's no reason to write "He was walking down the street," or "They were drinking Diet Pepsi," unless the sentence concludes "when the meteor fell on them."
Unless the passive verb is there to establish a temporal space--like the lead-in to a joke's punchline--use the past tense. He walked down the street and They drank Diet Pepsi are crisp, instantly clear statements. Your writing has more authority, and your readers will listen to you.
2) One thought per sentence, please. In our enthusiasm to express ourselves, we often race headlong into our words. Sometimes we have a great deal to say. We want our thoughts and findings out in the world.
In this headlong rush, writers may pack several concepts into one sentence or paragraph. This creates the prose equivalent of a mudslide. The concepts moosh together, lose their impact, and daze the reader.
Rather than say: Congressman Thomas proposed a sweeping new healthcare regulation, while Congressman Simpson fought for changes in a military funding rider...
Consider that these are two equally important points. They rate a sentence alone.
Congressman Thomas proposed a sweeping new healthcare regulation. His colleague, Congressman Simpson, fought for changes in a military funding rider.
It took a few more words, but these two important statements now stand on their own. Readers need that pause between thoughts. It's especially important in journalism, technical writing, and other reportage.
3) Avoid clichéd adjectives. Writers, like musicians, have pet phrases that return in their work. Just as a jazz trumpeter, or rock guitarist, may use similar passages in their solos, writers can overuse adjectives.
Two to avoid: amazing and hilarious. "Amazing" should be used with extreme care. Modern writing runs rampant with amazing this, amazing that. Not everything can be amazing. Consult your thesaurus. If you don't have a hard copy, go to http://thesaurus.com/ and look for alternatives.
Here, free of charge, are seven alternatives to "amazing:"
fascinating, marvelous, stunning, incredible, wonderful, remarkable, surprising
As for "hilarious..." This word connotes an extreme state of amusement. It's that roll-on-the-floor, wipe-away-tears, need-new-trousers kind of funny. Not everything is hilarous--and thank goodness for that! We'd be incapacitated in such a world.
You have options--millions of options--as a writer. Words are a gift. Use them and savor them. Brighten your reader's world with variety. Don't be afraid to make them look up a word. That's why dictionaries exist.
4) Shorten your sentences. This is not an adjunct of Tip #2. This is the most common action I perform as an editor. I admire Jack Kerouac's rolling, kinetic paragraphs in On The Road and other novels. There is rarely call for such expansive sentences in everyday prose.
Always keep your reader in mind. That person has to absorb what you write. They may not have much time to do so. Break it up. Shorter sentences are easier to digest. We have breathing room to take in the words. As a result, we understand what's said.
Before you release your writing into the world, go over it. Look for meandering sentences. Rewrite them, or turn them into two--or three--sentences. You'll succeed as a writer. You will communicate to your reader.
5) Be yourself. I realize this isn't always possible. It's hard to put a personal spin on complex technical writing. Even more serious writing has room for a touch of the writer's personality. It's a gift to the reader, and it renders your writing more readable.
Corporate writing tends to depersonalize its words--and cloud them in obtuse lingo. It has no soul. Thus, it is among the hardest-to-read prose in the world. Any hint of humanity--be it ever so subtle--is a godsend and gift.
Whenever you're able, try to write with warmth and a personable quality. Aim for clear, smooth sentences that aren't robotic. Challenge yourself to find a way to do this in all your writing. It gives your reader a sense of connection. This connection is the heart and soul of communication. This is why we write--and read.
I hope these tips help you write with more ease and pleasure.