- Cut the that: One of the simplest ways to make your writing seem more polished is by cutting out any extraneous that from relative clauses. Relative clauses contain a subject and a verb and begin with a relative pronoun, such as who, whom, whose, which, or that (the pronoun itself can be the subject), or a relative adverb, such as where, when, or why. For example, “that you know the final score” and “who played violin” are both relative clauses. Most of the time, if there’s another subject besides that, you can cut the that right out. Instead of “I heard that you know the final score,” use “I heard you know the final score.”
- Be direct: There are some phrases in English that are big on presence and small on meaning. While they may seem impressive, they actually dilute the sentence. Here are some examples: in order that, for the purpose of, for all intents and purposes. Even in technical or formal writing, these phrases get in the way. There are much simpler ways of saying the same thing: in order that = to, so that; for the purpose of = because, to; for all intents and purposes = [nothing—you can usually cut]. The context dictates what the replacement is.
- Zap adverbs with verbs: Not all adverbs are useless. Some can convey a meaning that a verb alone can’t quite capture. But using a more descriptive verb thrusts an image more clearly into the readers mind. “I ran fast across the field” is not nearly as piquant as “I zipped across the field.”
- Get words: The right word can save you three—or more. For example, “spindrift” creates more interest and conveys more meaning than “spray blown from waves during a gale.” Creating word pictures requires reaching into your brain and pulling out the right phrasing from the vocabulary you have. Never stop seeking out new ways to communicate.
- Become active: Passive sentences require more words to say the same thing, and they add a layer of disconnect between the reader and the prose. Sometimes passive is unavoidable (and sometimes it’s useful), but active is usually better.
- Don’t think: Well, you should think, of course, but don’t tell the reader you are. If you’re writing an opinion piece, the reader knows it’s your opinion. So, there’s no need to say “I think” or “in my opinion.”
- Keep it simple: Most of the time, you should avoid present continuous/present progressive verbs. You’ll usually know these by the following format: form of to be (is, are, am) + [verb]ing. For example, avoid “I am hiking” or “he is moonwalking” and stick with the simple present: “I hike” or “he moonwalks.” The same is true with past tense verbs. Eschew “they were traveling” for “they traveled.”
Some rules in English grammar are actually grammar folklore. We accept them; we get graded on them; and they take on iconic status. But they aren’t really as ironclad as they seem.
I already tackled ending a sentence with a preposition. So, today we take on split infinitives.
Most people know how to use infinitives—even if they don’t think about what they’re called. The basic format is to + a base verb:
- to be
- to hear
- to go
- to listen
Growing up, you may have been told that infinitives cannot be hacked apart. That is, the to has to go right with the verb and nothing shall render it asunder. If you’re like me, you may have even run up against a few red pens when you crossed that line.
But I’m here to free you from the historical misunderstanding. In Latin, an infinitive can’t be split because it’s one word (e.g., amare—to love), and since Latin was once considered a model language, this rule-that-is-not-a-rule crept into English.
English isn’t Latin, however. Oh, sure, there’s Latin in our jumbled language, but there’s no reason to abide by Latin constructs (especially for a German-based tongue). So, don’t feel guilty. Go ahead and use these:
- to boldly go
- to never surrender
- to slowly slip
I do want to caution you, though. If you bump the infinitive apart and squeeze in an adverb (as I did above), some readers will think of it as wrong. The myth is too well engrained to easily be removed.
Also, some infinitive chopping can actually make the phrase confusing:
We need to before the day dawns go to the mountain.
The infinitive to go is so widely split that it’s awkward. The better sentence is this:
We need to go to the mountain before the day dawns.
A word or two between the to and the verb is usually fine. But three or more makes the brain work too much.
Don’t worry—this is not a high school primer. Most people know a paragraph when they see one: a block of text, the first line possibly indented, one main idea explained.
But what’s less known is how to sculpt paragraphs, how to use them to capture and sustain interest. After all, it’s this attention to detail (i.e., “the craft”) that sets apart good writing from almost-there writing.
To show you what I mean, let’s perform a paragraph autopsy to examine the parts. (We’re going to limit this examination to non-dialog, multi-sentence paragraphs.)
- Topic or main sentence: The first sentence establishes the tone and topic of the rest. Readers tend to remember these sentences more and focus on them.
- Filler: The middle section is important, but—we’re being honest here—minds tend to wander most often in the middle of paragraphs. Questions pop up. What happened to Rose? Is this related to the article I read yesterday? Did I really have toothpaste on my chin all day?
- Ending: This is the part that wraps up the thought and keeps the reader engaged by leading to the next paragraph.
Paragraphs function like handholds on a climbing wall. Each paragraph should address some plot element, important point, evidence, character detail, description, etc. In other words, each one builds upon the last to solve the problem that you’ve presented to the reader—whether that’s a mystery or a news report.
Write like each paragraph is important to the overall direction of the prose—because it is.
Here are some tips for crafting better paragraphs:
- Begin with action or a “big” statement if at all possible. This goes back to the first sentence establishing the rest of the paragraph. Most of the time it’s best not to ease into your point or bury the suspenseful moment in a sea of words. Make the door burst open at the outset—and then explain who’s standing behind it. Tell your readers what poignant fact they need to know and then explain what it means.
- Keep them short (four sentences or less on average). Long paragraphs look tedious on the page. Readers need breaks and white spaces to keep the prose flowing. There are legitimate reasons for making something long (e.g., to slow down the pace), but keep it rare.
- Use one-sentence paragraphs on occasion. This used to be an egregious error (and it still is for most formal writing), but a few of these can add drama or make a point stand out.
- End with something that provokes thought or leaves the reader wanting more. Making every paragraph obey this rule isn’t feasible, but it’s a good goal to shoot for. The more you build interest into the last sentence, the more engaged the audience.
When I don’t have a deadline, I invent one. Yes, I add a whole layer of self-inflicted stress. But it’s not as crazy as it sounds.
My creativity is often like a massive wave of indistinct clutter. Ideas, images, characters, article elements pour out of every news story, biography, TV show, and weird looking rock. I love it, and I don’t.
Given enough freedom, I spend more time relishing in that cacophony of curiosity than I do actually reaching conclusions. I steer frantically from one topic to the next and generally leave off after a few pages. Without some sort of guardrail, I simply jump out and let the writing sail off wherever it will.
My own unbridled creativity can be a deadweight.
It was tough to admit that a few years ago. Writers feed on creativity, after all. But I also noticed how I rev up a notch with deadlines—they’re like literary coffee. Tell me to get something to you in a week, and my mind starts throwing down an outline. Tell me I can get it to you whenever, and you’ll probably see a few unfinished drafts—maybe.
So, I made some changes in how I approach my writing. I had to if I wanted to be serious about it. Here’s what I did:
- I stopped thinking of writing as just a creative endeavor. While there’s creativity at the core, writing is also a process and a business. It’s going from idea to finished product—and then selling that product. That’s not as cold and lifeless as it may seem. Changing my outlook has made me far more productive.
- Deadlines are now mandatory. As I mentioned, I don’t work on anything if there’s not a firm deadline. Unchallenged, I can be a slacker. So, I started a blog with a set schedule of at least a post per week, and I make myself stick to a deadline for anything that I work on. If you need support, find someone who will hold you accountable. And start small, as well—a page in a week, for example.
- I’m training myself to pick out the good ideas quickly. If you’re like me and have tons of ideas filling up notebooks and Google Docs (and your head), tossing out the ones that won’t work is essential. The more I read, the more I write, the more I’ve honed that instinct. However, I still keep even silly ideas in a file. I just focus on the ones that seem to click instead of all of them.
- I write—and submit. Successfully submitting something to an editor is a huge motivator. Even if I don’t get the work published, the act itself reminds me what I want for my writing. And then I want to do it all over again.
No matter how long I’ve been slogging through articles, papers, stories, novels, and marketing copy; no matter how many other writers’ works I’ve contorted, massaged, and gutted; no matter how many times I’ve improved my craft with writing classes, seminars, and groups, I still have moments in which I wonder if any of it is any good and contemplate stopping.
Doubt has invaded.
Although I do not know the source, the best definition of doubt I’ve come across is “fear projected outward.” What started as a nagging feeling has now become manifest in the world outside your mind.
First come the fears:
People are going to hate my work.
There’s no way I can finish this project.
The editor has no choice but to reject my article.
No publisher will take a chance on my book.
Doubt happens when those fears impact your mindset and your actions. They cripple your writing, slow you down, and perhaps make you give up on a project.
But you don’t have to let doubt conquer you.
The first thing to remember is that there’s a fine line between fear and instinct. Your writing instincts show you what works and what doesn’t. Not liking the current draft and worrying that it might not work out doesn’t make a failure of it. In fact, your instincts are simply being honed, sharpened for future writing. This draft didn’t work. You knew it. That’s a sign of progress.
Second, doubt has warning signs. Long before you feel like burning your computer, notes, and everything else associated with the written word, you’ll have moments of intense emotional stress, indecision, and uncertainty. When those come, make sure that you deal with them. Remind yourself that writing is not an easy task, and it takes a lot out of a person. You can’t turn off those feelings, but you can use them to drive you to improve.
Next, blunt doubt before it starts. Writing on a consistent basis dulls a great deal of doubt. You may have 99 drafts that don’t work, but you know a new one will be finished soon. Beyond that, actively seek ways to enrich your knowledge and skills. Progress is a doubt killer—through supportive writing groups, classes, reading for research (or pleasure), writing conferences, or trips to see places where writing and history collide.
Finally, and this is a big one, examine what influences you. Surrounding yourself with people who mock you and your writing will inevitably drag you down. You need support and understanding as a writer. Conversely, not reaching out to other writers (or a personal community) can just as easily make you feel unchallenged and uninspired.
Doubt comes to us all–what makes us successful writers is the way we deal with it.
You can do this.
What I’m about to reveal may very well cause editors the world over to send hate mail. But you, my faithful readers, must know the truth.
Well, this is actually not some arcane grammar secret, since a simple Internet search will give you the details. I will caution you up front to use this literary device very sparingly, but let me show you the proper, classical way to skirt grammar rules.
Remember the old maxim that one should never use sentence fragments? Most of the time this is great advice, but there are occasions when a fragment can have a powerful impact. This mainly works because the reader, consciously or subconsciously, fills in the blanks and becomes more involved with your prose.
Let’s give the formal definition:
- anapodoton: leaving out a clause to deliberately make a fragment, though the missing clause is suggested by the fragment
The key here is that what’s left out needs to be understandable (if not, you’ve only got a fragment). Here’s a classic example:
If only I were down there on the field.
While we don’t know exactly what the narrator thinks will happen, we do know that delusions of grandeur are in the offering. Or take this example:
Whenever you decide to be reasonable.
Here we know the narrator means that the desired outcome will happen when the audience sees things in the correct way (i.e., the narrator’s way).
As you may have noticed, anapodoton usually works best with dialog or first-person narration. However, you could also make it work with essays, poetry, and even formal writing.
If you use it wisely.
What I can’t promise, however, is that editors, professors, and others deciding your writing fate will see a witty anapodoton instead of a fragment. That depends on how well you can argue your point.
The distinction between the words fewer and less can seem almost silly. However, the train of English grammar over the centuries has kept on a specific course. And this is what we have for now:
- The word fewer (a plural noun) is used when you can count the number of items in question (no matter how high or microscopic the number is).
- The word less (a single noun) is used when you cannot make an accurate count because what’s being measured is an abstraction.
That leaves us with correct usage that looks something like this:
- There are fewer than five chips left for the salsa.
- You have less patience than you did before I scratched your paint.
Is there an exception to this? You bet. When less is followed by than, it can function exactly like fewer.
- No less than 90,000 fans watched their team lose in the last minute.
As a bonus, farther and further are becoming more and more segregated (in much the same way as fewer and less). The interesting aspect here is that this is a newer development.
- Prefer farther when you can actually measure spatial or temporal distance. (In other words, further is acceptable, but farther is considered better.)
- Use further when there’s no physical distance.
- With metaphorical distances, you have the option of either term depending on preference.
Here’s what I mean:
- The ball sailed farther to the left than he would have liked. [measurable distance]
- He worked on further refining his kicking game. [no distance to actually measure]
- Nothing could be further/farther from the truth. [pick wisely—based on what the editor likes]