After reading Vicki Weiland’s guest post yesterday, I finally got off my rear end and decided on my Write Nonfiction in November project. (Yes, I’m actually beginning my writing two days late, which puts me at a disadvantage, I suppose.) She wrote about her pet editing peeve, which had nothing to do with grammar per se. Instead, her pet peeve involved writers talking about writing rather than actually writing. This caused me to visualize myself sitting in front of her and telling her about one of my many book projects, all of which have proposals and several of which have been written in shortened, booklet form, but none of which have been completely written in full length form. I could imagine the disappointment in her eyes, and I knew what I had to do. I had to take on one of my book projects. And that’s what I’m doing this month. I will, indeed, start and finish one of the manuscript for one of my book projects. So there. (That does, actually, mean I have to write almost 50,000 words like the NaNoWriMo writers, though, so I better get going today.)
Despite the inpiring and helpful nature of Vicki’s post, I found myself left with the blog on editor’s pet peeves unwritten. Last year I wrote a fair amount on the issues I deal with most often when editing nonfiction manuscripts for my clients, but I suppose I can tackle this subject again. It always bears repeating, since even the best writers tend to forget to pay attention to some of the most common writing mistakes. Beginning and intermediate writers benefit from a short course in common mistakes, too. (I know this from working with my son yesterday on his honor’s English reading log.)
So, I guess today you’re stuck with me. I’ll offer you my five quick tips for improving your writing. They also represent my editorial pet peeves.
Tip #1: Write active sentences. At all costs, and whenever possible, avoid the verb “to be” in all its forms and tenses. By this I mean, don’t write passive sentences. This IS my pet peeve. Don’t use “is,” “was,” “were,” or any other form of this verb.
I will admit that sometimes, something just IS, and you can’t get around using a form of “to be.” Even I use it in my writing. If you can rewrite your sentence or find another verb — “represents” and “constitutes” often work, but not many replacements exist, do so. If you can’t, you might be stuck with a passive sentence. Do, please, at least try to rewrite. Usually rearranging words and phrases, or simply finding another way to say what you want to say does the trick.
If all my clients got rid of even 50 percent of their passive sentences prior to giving me their manuscripts to edit, they’d save themselves a hunk of money (in terms of the number of hours it takes me to edit their work). It takes a long time to fix passive sentences.
Why should you care about ridding your work of passive sentences? They create weak and uninteresting writing. Try a little harder to find and use the host of exciting and useful verbs in the English language, and you’ll find you’ve strengthen and enliven everything you write.
Tip #2: Write clearly. Write so someone can understand what you mean not so someone will be impressed with your writing. If you say something impressive, and your readers understand it, they’ll be impressed. Maybe they’ll notice your great writing; maybe not. If they understand, however, your writing is doing its job, so it must constitute good writing.
As an editor, I spend almost as much time simplifying complicated sentences as I do strengthening weak writing caused by passive verb usage. Sometimes writers want to sound like literary geniuses, and so they use big words and lots of clauses. Other times, they want to cover up their lack of writing ability by trying to sound high brow and intelligent through odd choices of words. I’m left reading their writing and wrinkling my brow and asking, “What?” If I can’t understand what you’ve written on the page, neither will your average reader. I always edit and read a manuscript as if I’m the average reader who knows nothing – and that’s how I encourage writers to write nonfiction (unless their audience happens to be more knowledgeable – see tip #4).
Write the way you speak…simply. Say what you mean when you put words on paper. Don’t try so hard to sound “smart.” You can come back later and find the perfect word, if a better, more accurate one exists. In today’s day and age, unless someone wants to read the New York Times or The New Yorker, they want quick and easy, down and dirty information. Simple. Clear. Easy to understand. Quick to digest.
Tip #3: Beware of too many clauses. If you find your writing has many clauses set off by commas, see if those clauses actually could be – or should be – placed at the beginning or the end of the sentence. More often than not, you’ll find they are misplaced, and by finding their correct “home” you can get rid of a few commas and clarify your sentence. In other words, the clause may actually modify something else in your sentence. Move it around and see where it sounds best and makes the most sense.
Tip #4: Write for your reader. I write for a lot of different publications with different readerships. I edit a lot of manuscripts meant for different types of readers as well. It’s important to know who will be reading what you write before you begin writing, and then write with that reader in mind. You don’t want to write an article of The New Yorker‘s calibre when your reader only reads The Star. These constitute two totally different types of readers. You don’t want to write a book on basic physics using language that only an expert physicist would understand; you’ll lose your reader on the first page. Someone reading a book on how to run a business and someone reading a book on how to raise a child, however, might both be college educated. One might have time to really delve into a book and the other might want to read in short intervals, but they both might enjoy intelligent writing aimed at someone with a college education. So, know your audience and write for that audience.
Tip #5: Don’t be attached to your words. Professional writers have to learn not to be attached to their words. They have to see them as the pieces of a puzzle that either fit or don’t fit. If they don’t fit, they must be placed aside and not looked at again. Learn to be objective about your writing. If that means putting your manuscript aside for a few days or a week, then do so. Come back to it with “fresh eyes.” Or read it as if it weren’t your own work. Be honest. Be your own best editor. (And keep this attitude when someone else edits your work as well.)
To round my tips up to 10, here are five more:
- Stay away from rhetorical questions.
- Avoid starting sentences with “and” or “but.”
- Use commas in compound sentences.
- Pick a style for punctuation in a series and stick with it.
- Know how to use punctuation with bullets.