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A Word, Please: Good writing should always be engaging, specific

Good grammar is important for good writing. But to be honest, that’s usually the easy part.

Avoiding subject-verb agreement errors such as “I goes” and pronoun case errors like “Me want” isn’t exactly difficult.

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Yes, esoteric grammar matters can crop up in almost anyone’s writing, but good basic grammar is usually a no-brainer.

Good writing is another matter.

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There are a million ways to write badly while still observing the laws of grammar. So here, based on my work editing inexperienced writers, are some bits of advice for improving your prose.

Avoid gratuitous adverbs. Good writers, especially writers for top publications, pretty much never use “totally” or “truly” or “very” or “absolutely.”

They even tend to avoid more substantive adverbs like “angrily,” “quickly” and “exclusively.” I think I know why.

The first variety, let’s call them emphasis adverbs, function almost like apologies for the information in the rest of the sentence. “Barbara is a genius” is a statement of fact. “Barbara is truly a genius” is more like a plea, as if the writer is begging the reader to believe him.

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Facts that can stand alone are more powerful. As for those descriptive adverbs, consider “He quickly grabbed the gun.” Do you really need that “quickly”? Maybe. But probably not.

Break up and pare down long sentences. “Walking into his office to find open cabinets and ransacked drawers with papers spilling out, Al wondered if the robbers had found his ledger, which he had moved there from his house just three weeks before out of fear Jacqueline could stumble across it and realize he had a secret bank account in Belize, which he used to finance activities of which she would not have approved because they involved the red-haired girl whom Jacqueline had so adeptly sensed was a threat.”

Sometimes, our sentences run wild like this, as we link cause to effect to cause to effect in a stream-of-consciousness sequence.

Chop these monsters to bits. “Al walked into the office. The cabinets were open. Papers spilled out of ransacked drawers. Had the robbers found his ledger? He’d moved it there not three weeks ago, afraid Jacqueline might see it and put two and two together. The secret Belize bank account. The red-haired girl.”

Look out for passive voice. Let’s dispense with the silly controversy first: No, passive voice isn’t always bad. Yes, it’s sometimes exactly what your sentence needs.

But passive voice can be bad news in the hands of anyone unequipped to handle it. Passive occurs when the object of a transitive verb is the grammatical subject of a sentence.

Instead of active voice “Pete crashed the car,” you’d make the car the grammatical subject and get “The car was crashed by Pete” or, alternatively, a shorter “The car was crashed.”

Keep an eye out for these with the idea in mind that it’s usually more interesting to emphasize a person performing an action instead of a thing being acted upon.

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Watch out for upside-down subordination. Complex sentences have a main clause and a subordinate clause. “As Adam drove off the cliff, Sugar Ray played on car radio.”

The subordinate clause is the one introduced by a subordinating conjunction like “as.” It’s also the one that can’t stand alone as a sentence (hence the idea that it’s “subordinate” to the main clause).

When your most interesting information is crammed into a subordinate clause, the result is called upside-down subordination.

Recast the passage so that your interesting stuff gets top billing as the main clause: “As Sugar Ray played on the radio, Adam drove off the cliff.”

Choose specific nouns and verbs. Vague words are less engaging than specific ones, which draw vivid pictures in the reader’s mind.

Compare “The person went to the facility” with “The gunman ran to the DMV office.”

Make every noun and verb as specific as you can.

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