Whether you write for a living, functionally as part of your job, or as little as humanly possible because thinking about high school English still sends you into a cold sweat, we can all use a periodic reminder of some writing best practices — and the most common mistakes to avoid.
According to one Microsoft study, the human attention span is eight seconds (less than that of a goldfish’s). This means writers have precious little time to seize a reader’s attention before they’ll abandon ship for more interesting content. Whether it’s an email, presentation, article, or research paper, keep intros concise. After your first draft, go back and cut words (and sentences!) that take readers away from the point. Then, do it again.
Too many adjectives
In a letter to one of his students, Mark Twain advised: “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” He clarified not all adjectives, but most, should be eliminated since, “They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart.” Consider the following sentences:
The young, blonde girl danced around excitedly, her curly, pig-tailed hair bouncing in the chilly wind.
The girl danced excitedly, her pig-tails bouncing in the wind.
The first sentence is weighed down by needless adjectives; the second is easier to read. Moral of the story? Select adjectives carefully, and use them sparingly. Avoid the most banal variety at all costs: really, very, actually, quite, literally, happy, sad, good, bad, tall, wide, beautiful, bright, dark, old, and basic colours. Choose more descriptive adjectives (uncouth instead of rude) or a more illustrative noun (jalopy instead of old car).
Overuse of adverbs
As Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” It’s tempting to use adverbs liberally. We may think we’re adding mood or flair, when in fact, all we’re adding is unnecessary words. Take a look at the following examples:
She thought it was extremely rude. How could Mark be so incredibly mean?
She thought it was rude. How could Mark be so mean?
In the first example, extremely and incredibly add little meaning, beyond superficially inflating the adjectives they modify. We don’t want to live in an adverb-less world, but replacing weak verb-adverb pairs with more descriptive, standalone verbs will make your writing stronger. For example:
Instead of: The door opened slowly try The door creaked open.
And we love this tip: When editing your work, every time you see the word just, unless you’re using it to mean fair, delete it.
Using passive voice
The pie was made by Alice. Alice made the pie. The first sentence is an example passive voice, in which the subject (pie) is the recipient of the verb’s action (made). The second sentence uses active voice, in which the subject (Alice) acts upon the verb (made). According to Grammarly, “sentences in the active voice have a strong, direct, and clear tone” while the passive voice is “subtler and weaker.” There can be a temptation to use passive voice to sound fancier or more literary. Resist, unless there is no other way to write the sentence.
Also, passive voice can sound evasive, like a shirking of responsibility. Consider the following example: A scheduling mistake has occurred, and efforts were made to fix it. (Well, who made the mistake? Who is taking care of it?) It would be more clear and honest to say, in active voice: We made a scheduling mistake, and we are making every effort to fix it.
In the same letter, Twain complimented his student on his use of “plain, simple language, short words, and brief sentences,” encouraging him to stick to that way of writing, without letting “fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.”
Verbosity can come in the form of excessive prepositional phrases (words like over, with, behind, in, of, or after that show direction, location, or time) and filler words such as here, there, it, and that. Whenever possible, swap prepositional phrases for words that pack a more descriptive punch. For example: Jesse went up the side of the mountain after Jake. Cut out “up” and “of” to make a stronger sentence: Jesse climbed the mountain after Jake.
Similarly, when you see the words here, there, it, and that, ask yourself if they can be cut without altering the sentence’s meaning. Example: Tony thinks that the Red Sox will go to the World Series. Tony thinks the Red Sox will go to the World Series.
Entire books have been written on proper comma usage, but here we’ll focus on one common common mistake: the comma splice. This error happens when two independent clauses are connected with a comma rather than a conjunction or semicolon.
For example: Becky loves Coldplay, she went to their concert.
Both clauses above could exist on their own, and should be connected with a conjunction or a semicolon. (Or separated by a period.)
Becky loves Coldplay, so she went to their concert.
Becky loves Coldplay. She went to their concert.
Becky loves Coldplay; she went to their concert.
Not having a conclusion
Even if it’s just one sentence, offer readers a sense of closure rather than stopping the topic abruptly. How weird would it have been if this article had ended with Becky’s Coldplay drama?