Tips for Effective Writing

The views expressed are those of C. S. Wyatt.

These tips for writing for a general audience are derived from various books by writers and personal experience.

  • Write in “plain” English: reduce jargon, clichés, and regional elements to those essential to the text or story.
  • Write dialogue like a person might sound: few people speak “proper” English and even fewer think it sounds correct.
  • Write only what is necessary: more is not always better. If something can be stated with fewer words, do so. If a text runs short, cover more material — avoid “filler” words.
  • Edit, don’t mangle meaning: over-editing annoys readers as much as wordiness. Assuming readers know background facts loses part of the audience.
  • Use humor: especially in technical writing, humor helps hold an audience.

Analyzing the Blocks

When you write a chapter or section of any work, you should ask yourself why that section exists. What is the point of the section? Some example purposes for a section include:

  • Background information: the facts needed to make sense of the work, the “context” of the words.
  • Foreshadow: let readers know what is ahead, or at least what might be ahead.
  • Color: adding details, depth, and richness to the work.
  • Rhetoric: content meant to convince readers to follow along, persuading readers to support the author or narrator.

There are other ways to consider sections of a work; the key is that you have a reason for every word, sentence, and section within a larger work.

Show, Tell, or Omit?

Writers consider each element of a narrative, even in nonfiction. Do you show, tell, or omit details? Writing teachers often repeat “Show, Don’t Tell,” but the reality is more complex. Some information is best told so you can deal with more important and compelling content. The toughest choices involve what to omit. Remember, you want to include the essential elements, omit the extras, all while creating a compelling work.

Hook the Reader

You have fifty words, roughly, to hook a reader. Not only should the first page of a work hook readers — the start of every section needs to hook readers. Audience expectations vary by form and genre; you need to know your audience.

Mechanical Tips for Writers

1. Use the active voice and learn the forms of “to be” — so you can remove them.

Passive writing is boring writing. A passive sentence places the object acting after the verb. “The ball was bounced by the kids,” becomes “The kids bounced the ball.” Active sentences tend to be shorter and clearer. Locating conjugations of the verb “to be” reveals passive sentences. Be aware that not all sentences with forms of “to be” are passive; there are times when “to be” separates a subject from its definition or a description. I have heard of teachers assigning students essays with the requirement that no forms of “to be” appear in the essays. Such assignments are silly.

The passive voice remains a virus in my writings. Maybe as I tire it creeps into the texts, but it is more likely that I am a poor editor of my own works. I locate passive sentences in the works of others with relative ease; I miss basic errors in my own. The “to be” table helps me; despite years of grammar study I do forget the check for auxiliary abuse.

Just for curiosity: (I am guilty of this sin) Most Americans say “I will” when “I shall” is the grammatical form for first person future conjugations. Likewise, it is proper to write “I should” and “he / she / we / they would.” Another misuse of “shall” is as a command auxiliary. Replace “shall” with “will” when a command or obligation is intended. It is not “You shall clean your room.” Consider the strength of “You will clean your room,” which is the correct form. (“I should” is proper, but sounds to most people like a self-debate.) I do not plan to use “I shall” — The Consensus states that “I will” is becoming acceptable.

2. This is not a pronoun.

Grammatically, “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those” are technically pronouns, but I find it annoying in writing. This what? In writing, unlike speech, one must be precise. “This is why…” begins too many sentences in technical and rhetorical writing. In my quest to write better manuals, I try to fix these pronouns by including a specific noun. In fiction using these pronouns is acceptable, lending a relaxed tone to the work.

3. Avoid “not” and other negatives when possible.

Instead of writing, “He does not like tofu” write, “He dislikes tofu.” The second sentence is concise. I still have difficulty removing the “nots” from my writings. I think we get accustomed to using “not” early in school. Contractions makes “not” easy to use and short to write. “Without” is another common negative, but it is a bit longer than “not.”

4. Precision bests adverbs and adjectives.

If you know an exact measure, a precise observation, then avoid using adverbs. Instead of a “very tall woman” entering a room, write that she was 6'2" and the reader has a very clear image. Reading a popular automotive magazine, I learned that a certain car was “very under-powered.” Not knowing what the writer meant, I scanned for the exact horsepower of the car… never to find it. If you can, be precise. If you still want the modifiers, include them after the facts. “At 110 horsepower, this model is very under-powered.”

5. Fix split infinitives, participles, and verb phrases.

An infinitive is a verb preceded by the word “to.” No other words belong between “to” and the verb. Susan reminds me that “to boldly go…” must be the most famous split infinitive in history. Properly, Captain Kirk’s mission is “to go boldly,” which seems to lack something. If you look at the first item in this list, you see a table of “to be” conjugations. Those conjugations are the basis of verb phrases. No adverbs or adjectives should be inserted into these phrases. Of course, I frequently insert adverbs in improper positions, mirroring my speech patterns. I will someday learn better.

6. Seek and destroy useless or weak words.

I overuse a number of words. These words include: very, just, merely, every, such, that, however, then, and so. I have been told that writers develop habits, most of them bad. While I think this was a reference to drinking and smoking, using the same few words too often is also a bad habit. So, I just need to be very careful that I don’t get carried away.

Very is “poison” a high school English teacher told me. “What does ‘very’ mean?” he asked. To this day I cannot answer that question, yet “very” still enters my sentences when I am distracted.

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Writer: C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 30-Nov-2013
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach