I always struggled with writing. After reading book after book, I tried to write better and improve my writing. I explain ten tricks in this blog that authors use to improve their writing. Writers use the first trick to reduce the word count of their written material from 5% to 10%. As writers remove words from their composition, they focus their thoughts and ideas. However, this rule depends on the writer. I struggle to place words on paper, so reducing the word count by 5% works well for me. A writer such as Stephen King who writes volumes upon volumes of words could reduce his writing easily by 20% or more without losing ideas.
Authors apply the second rule to improve their writings - they write for humanity. People are the center of the action. They receive or act in every sentence. For example, I heard a reference that professors write textbooks using a dead language. Read the example below:
The Law of Demand states a greater market price causes quantity demanded to fall, and vice versa while the Law of Supply states a greater market price causes quantity supplied to rise, and vice versa.
I wrote the sentence using correct grammar, but I used abstract subjects. Who represents demand, and who represents supply? Consumers reflect the demand function while producers, manufacturers, and suppliers influence the supply. Consequently, I rewrote the paragraph to reflect the participants who cause the action.
Law of Demand states consumers reduce their quantity demanded as the market price rises, and vice versa. Law of Supply states producers boost their quantity supplied as the market price rises, and vice versa.
Now we explicitly identified which parties do the action without referring to abstract nouns. Readers would find my economics book still boring, but the book would be more readable and bearable.
Writers employ a third trick by remembering the most important pieces of the sentences: Nouns and verbs. A noun refers to a person, place, and thing while a verb expresses a noun's actions. Words such as adjectives, gerunds, and participles modify or add additional details about the noun while the adverb provides extra information about the verbs. Nouns and verbs become the most important brick's in constructing the sentence. Then add adjectives and adverbs sparingly because they detract the readers' attention from the nouns and verbs. Read the example below:
The unfamiliar man asked in a low voice, "Where is the nearest bank?"
Many writers clamor for many words as possible with no regards for quality. I rewrote the sentence as:
The stranger whispered, "Where is the nearest bank?"
Many writers believe a sentence must be full of words to make it intelligent. That is not true. Great writers vary their sentence length. They write some sentences with as little as three words while they write other sentences stretching into 20 words or more. Great writers vary their sentence length to maintain a reader's interest. Imagine you must read a 5,000-word essay, and every sentence strings together 25 words. No matter the essay's topic, readers would become bored reading it.
Ted Cheney's Rule becomes the fourth trick to improve writing. An author only allows one form of the 'to be' verb for every 100 words. I listed the 'to be' verbs below:
am is are will be were was
If your essay has 5,100 words, then remove as many 'to verbs,' so every composition does not contain more than 51 instances of a 'to be' verb. Consequently, your composition would have 51 or fewer 'is' verbs, 51 or less 'are' verbs, et cetera. Writing present tense, I usually litter my composition with 'is' verbs. As I write past tense, I overuse the 'was' verbs. As you eliminate 'to be' verbs, you replace them with action verbs. For example, I wrote the paragraph for my short story – Paying for College.
"I am still sitting in the bushes, waiting. I could not see the other occupant, but this is good news. Chad is the son of Mike, who runs the garage. Mike is permanently on vacation and rarely steps foot in his own business."
Sentence has 43 words with three "is" verbs. I should have 0.43 to be verbs, or close to zero. I rewrote the paragraph to remove the two "is" verbs. Did you notice how I added the verb 'to smile' to strengthen my action?
"I am still sitting in the bushes, waiting. I could not see the other occupant, but I smile at the good news. Chad is the son of Mike, who runs the garage. Mike went on a permanently vacation and rarely steps foot in his own business."
I could eliminate the "am" verb by stating "I sit in the bushes…" but this changes the sentences. I am using a progressive present tense to indicate I am sitting in the bushes for a while.
Writers use a fifth trick to improve their writing. They write using active voice versus passive voice. Active voice indicates the subject does the action, whereas passive voice switches the recipient of the action to the subject. Writers often drop the subject of the sentence, the person doing the action. Therefore, passive voice can create abstract sentences where the reader may not know who does the action. After teaching in the United States and several foreign countries, my foreign students usually write in active voice while my native English speakers write many of their sentences in the passive voice. Passive voice requires a greater depth of knowledge of the English language. For example, this sentence came from one of my research papers.
"Soybean meal is exported or used in animal feeds while the soybean oil is sold in existing markets or converted to biodiesel."
Who exports soybean meal? Extraction mills export the meal. Thus, I inserted extraction mills into the sentence because they perform the action.
"Extraction mills export soybean meal or blend it in animal feeds while they sell the soybean oil in existing markets or convert the oil to biodiesel."
In the process, I sharpened my explanation. I used the verb blend in place of used. Again, using the Ted Cheney Rule to eliminate the 'to be' verbs helps reduce passive voice because writers often create passive voice using the verbs - is, are, was, and were. Nevertheless, writers can create passive voice using other verbs but the 'to be' verbs remain the usual culprits.
Passive voice has its place. Writing a sentence with passive voice mixed in here and there with active voice helps writers vary their compositions. A writer should reduce passive voice but not completely eradicate it. A writer still needs passive voice for the following.
- Researchers write scientific papers heavily using passive voice because they believe passive voice removes human judge and biases from the paper. However, some researchers debate this issue. Some researchers write in active voice.
- As a writer switches passive voice into active voice, they usually shorten their sentences, especially if the writer includes the recipient of the action in the sentence. Then the writer transfers the recipient to the subject. However, a writer can lengthen a sentence by switching a sentence to active voice. For example, it is forbidden to litter in the park. Sentence is short and to the point. If a writer switched this to active voice, he or she would greatly lengthen the sentence. If the police catch you littering in the park, they will fine and/or incarcerate you.
- Passive voice softens the language and expresses ideas politely. From the last example, it is forbidden to litter in the park. Action focuses on the violator. However, switching the action to the police as the enforcers make them sound threatening as if the police are lurking behind the trees waiting for the violators.
- As writers compose dialogue, and his or her characters use passive voice, then authors must use passive voice in the composition. For readers to enjoy the writing, the dialogue must flow naturally, and people do speak using the passive voice.
Writers use the sixth rule to strengthen their writing. They eliminate dithering because these words create uncertainty and weaken characters' actions. Dithering words include maybe, possibly, perhaps, and try. For instance, I wrote this sentence for my short story, Paying for College:
There is no way I would try to cash these.
Analyzing this sentence, the verb try 'makes' the character sound uncertain. Did you notice the 'is' verb? Many writing guides suggest writers remove all forms of 'there is.' After I rewrote my sentence, the sentence becomes:
No way would I cash these.
I strengthen the character's action by eliminating the verbs 'is' and 'try.' I hinted at the seventh rule to eliminate all forms of 'there + verb.' After thinking about it, does 'there + verb' add any meaning to the sentence? Examine the following sentence:
There was a tornado that destroyed the town in 1995.
I rewrote the sentence to eliminate 'there was.' Even Microsoft Word 2010 caught this error and suggested correctly to remove there and that. I added the verb 'had' to change the sentence to past perfect because this one event struck the town at one time.
A tornado had destroyed the town in 1995.
I listed the common other forms for the 'there + verb' construction. The Cheney Rule would help eliminate the first four. From the old school of writing, English teachers would call the writers lazy when they used the 'there + verb' construction. After writers become skilled in editing, they can eliminate this sentence construction easily.
There had been, etc.
Writers can use the eighth rule to reduce the word count in writing. This rule works well for novels and fictional stories. A writer can eliminate 'the' in most cases if it is the first word in a sentence. Read the paragraph from Paying for College:
The Buick's engine roars into life. The car has a severe case of rust-leprosy, and the exhaust was rattling badly as if the car is ready to fall apart. Then the car pulls onto the street and drives away.
I removed 'the' when it appears as the first word in a sentence. Did you miss it? This rule can help remove words from a composition, reducing the word count.
Buick's engine roars into life. Car has a severe case of rust-leprosy, and the exhaust was rattling badly as if the car is ready to fall apart. Then the car pulls onto the street and drives away.
Writers use the ninth trick to eliminate any words that add nothing to the sentence. I listed five adverbs that add none thing to a sentence. Mark Twain quoted about another useless adverb – very. He said, "Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."
Think about it. Do any of these adverbs add any ideas to the sentence or even add information to the verb. I threw these adverbs into the paragraph below.
Corporatism essentially comes in a variety of forms. In some cases, government ultimately dominates the relationship and regulates its industry. Inevitably, this management style is a top to bottom approach and apparently similar to the way communistic countries control their industries.
I removed essentially, ultimately, inevitably, and apparently from the sentence. Did these adverbs add any meaning to the sentences?
Corporatism comes in a variety of forms. In some cases, government dominates the relationship and regulates its industry. This management style is a top to bottom approach and is similar to the way communistic countries control their industries.
Abruptly becomes another abused adverb. Many writers insert abruptly into a sentence to accelerate the prose's action. This is not necessary. Short sentences and paragraphs containing action verbs speed up the action while lengthy paragraphs and long sentences slow down the pace. Read the following sentence. Does it need the adverb abruptly?
A criminal bursts into the room with his gun drawn. Bam! Bam! Bam!
Finally, some writers recommend eliminating the following words from their writings. These words contribute little meaning to a sentence.
It would appear
Looks as though
Reason + verb + because
Seemed as though
Office software has given writers a vital tool to edit their written material. An author can use the search function in Word 2007 and higher to edit his or her writing. For example, I type in 'Space is Space' in the navigation bar and Word searches for every instance of 'is.' If I did not include the spaces, then Word would include 'this' or 'island' if they appeared in the text. That way, Word gives the writer an accurate count of 'is' for the Cheney Rule. Moreover, a writer can use Find next to locate the next word in the composition. If a writer uses contractions in his composition, then he or she must also search for 'isn't'
New writers are horrified to remove words from a composition after they had struggled to put the words onto paper in the first place. Putting words onto a paper starts the first step to writing. Writers must learn the art of editing to sharpen and focus their prose. Good editing requires the writer to remove the most words as possible without losing ideas and meanings. For example, would a reader appreciate reading a novel with 100,000 words or the same novel where the writer had reduced the word count to 60,000 without removing ideas?