Have you ever had this experience? You sit down to write something — an email, a marketing blurb for your business, a piece of fiction, whatever. You write exactly what you want to say.
Then you lean back, reread what you wrote and gasp in horror. All those clear, elegant ideas you believed were dancing across the page are unrecognizable, buried under a mess of poorly chosen words and poorly assembled thoughts.
It happens to me more than I care to admit. Sometimes, looking at the mush I left on a page makes me wonder whether I missed my calling as a construction worker.
But when the horror fades I remember that bad writing can come out of just about anyone — even good writers. It's what you do with it that matters. And over the years, I've learned some tricks for fixing bad prose.
One of the easiest ways to fix bad writing doesn't work all the time, but when it does, the result is almost miraculous: Look for adverbs to cut. Certain adverbs, especially ones ending in “ly”, sound good in our heads when we're writing. But often, they're dead weight.
Does “Pete was completely exhausted” tell us anything we couldn't have learned from “Pete was exhausted”? You could argue that it does, but that would put you at odds with most professional writers and editors, whose work shows a strong aversion to empty adverbs.
Instead, the consensus seems to be that unadorned verbs (“murder”) and adjectives (“fast”) are more powerful than dolled-up forms (“brutally murder,” “really, really, really fast”).
Of course, you couldn't just yank the adverbs out of a sentence like “He left quickly” or “Drive carefully.” That's why I recommend this adverb survival test: If an adverb adds information, it should probably stay. If it adds only emphasis, try taking it out.
State-of-mind verbs can cause the same problem. Compare “Joe decided he needed to get out of town, so he packed up and left” with “Joe packed up and left town.” Does the latter leave any doubt that Joe had made a decision? Was it really necessary to say he “needed” to leave town before saying that he left town? Perhaps. But, again, this is exactly the type of information professional writers leave out.
True, it can be hard to guess how much detail the reader needs. But amateur writers err on the side of over-explaining, giving the reader too little credit. In a culture that's constantly bombarding us with words, brevity can be powerful. So it's often better to risk under-explaining.
Another reliable trick for paring down wordy, empty sentences is to take a hard look at your subjects and verbs. If they're abstract or uninteresting, it's an opportunity to make writing more lively and efficient.
Look at “The fact that Joe had quit his job in anger, slamming the door to Lou's office, meant he needed a new job that wouldn't check his references.”
Here the subject is “the fact that.” And, amid all this high-drama quitting and door-slamming, the main verb of our sentence is the yawn-inducing “meant.” Sentences like this can be torn down and rebuilt. “Joe quit, slamming the door to Lou's office. So much for that job reference.”
The opportunities for rewriting this sentence are almost limitless. But they all begin with the realization that “the fact that” doesn't make a very interesting subject and “meant” isn't a very lively verb.
Honing in on the subject and verb of each sentence also highlights the core of your message. Then it's easier to see whether all the stuff in the sentence helps the main message or just weighs it down.
JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.