5 Tips for Keeping Your Writing Clean and Focused

I see many beginning writers struggle to find a writing style that doesn’t sound too academic (read: stilted, boring, and needlessly obtuse). Here are five tips to help keep your writing clean and focused.

1. Avoid long sentences

It’s hard to write a long sentence that works, to get the verbs, punctuation, timing, and cadence right so the reader doesn’t get lost.

So don’t write them. Focus on writing plain, straightforward sentences.

One of the best writing tips I ever received came from a former boss, the wonderful Nancy Webb, who served as an executive editor at Weekly Reader for many years. I had been trying to write a compelling article lead but kept get mired down in my own prose.

“There’s nothing more powerful,” she told me, “than a simple declarative sentence.”

She was right. Take a look at your own writing, and look at how many simple declarative sentences you tend to use. If you don’t spot many, start slicing those long sentences into sentences that would make Nancy proud.

2. Avoid long paragraphs

There’s nothing inherently wrong with long paragraphs. In fact they can prove enormously helpful in fully describing a complex idea. However, for much non-fiction writing, and certainly for health-related textbook writing, long paragraphs should show up only when necessary.

Part of the reason for that is to provide some white space (also called negative space) on the page, though that’s more a benefit than a reason. Avoid long paragraphs mainly to maintain reader interest.

Purists might argue that a paragraph should be as long as it needs to be and that if the writing is good enough, the reader will come along for the ride.

For fiction and other more literary pursuits, that rule works. But for today’s student, for better or worse, faces time pressures many of us didn’t face when we were in school. To succeed in reaching today’s reader, then, writers need to take that pressure into account.

Vary the length of your paragraphs, absolutely, but try to stay away from paragraphs longer than a couple inches deep when printed on the published page.

Note how the size of the column on the left, with just a tad over one paragraph, makes the column dense, with little white space. The column on the right, with five shorter paragraphs of varied lengths provides more white space and so proves more engaging to the eye.

3. Use active verbs

Nothing moves prose along faster than active verbs. Learn them. Keep them handy. Use them often.

Banish to the extent possible those mangy passive verbs: is, am, are, was, were, to be, have, had, and the rest. Smash them. Splatter them. Lay waste to them like the Huns ravaged those pesky rascals of Western Europe.

‘Nuff said.

4. Change directions up front

When you need to present the “flip side,” the “other side of the coin,” or the proverbial and also trite “on the other hand,” do so straight away. Don’t make the reader guess the direction you’re heading in.

Use words like these to signal a shift in direction:

  • However
  • Although
  • Yet
  • But (By the way, there is absolutely nothing wrong with starting a sentence with “But.” Just do so sparingly, because it gets tiresome quickly.)
  • Whereas
  • Even though
  • If only
  • Until
  • Unless

Once you’ve changed directions, continue apace!

5. Say what you mean

Too many people write as if to prove they’re intelligent instead of writing to make their meaning clear. They use jargon like mayo on a BLT and adjectives and nouns strung together like misshapen pearls on a too-long necklace.

For example…

To minimize the possibility of these mismatches proving problematic for intensive clinical interpersonal relationship-building, clear communication among active participants is essential. Any inherently vague instances of teacher-learner connectedness must be evaluated in light of ongoing information dissemination challenges.

Writing like that deserves one gargantuan Huh?

So don’t write that way. If you’re having trouble putting into words what you’re trying to say, speak it. Tell it to someone or into the nearest recording device.

Our “speaking mind” works differently than our “writing mind.” When we speak, our mind helps simplify and clarify our thoughts. Use it to help simplify and clarify your writing too.

Now, go forth and speak your mind in writing!

5 responses to “5 Tips for Keeping Your Writing Clean and Focused

  1. Pingback: A Look Back at Popular Posts of 2011 | Andy McPhee

  2. Wow! Love the article! Thank you very much! Tip #1 taught me alot. This made me excited for my english class tomorrow.

  3. Lorry Schoenly

    Good idea – I think I’ll do the same!

  4. Pingback: Good advice for my students | Nancy’s Classroom

  5. I’m passing on your post to my students. These are things they need to hear from someone other than me sometimes!

    I’m curious, though, about what happened to tip #4.

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