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A Word, Please: How can you fix bad writing? Here are 7 tips

Fried chicken from Wool Growers on May 21, 2020, in Bakersfield.
“Those who visit the restaurant can choose from a variety of lunch and dinner options,” writes grammar columnist June Casagrande, is not an example of good writing.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

For most of my editing career, I’ve worked in the lower rungs of the writing world, polishing the prose of inexperienced and, often, unskilled writers.

I love it.

Bad writing fascinates me. I obsess over what, exactly, makes it bad and how to fix it.

I’ve learned there are a million ways to write badly, from corny dialogue to illogical juxtapositions of facts. But at the sentence level, some problems crop up again and again. And a lot of them are easy to fix, or at least improve.

Here are seven tips for fixing some of the most common writing problems I encounter.

1. Make sure the main clause of your sentence contains the information you most want to highlight. Compare these two passages. “After shooting his business partner in the face, John felt tired.” “John shot his business partner in the face. He collapsed, exhausted.” Your main clause is the marquee position in any sentence. Readers automatically know this is the main point. A subordinating conjunction like “after” suggests the stuff that follows is not the main point. So give your best information the billing it deserves by making it your main clause.

2. Break up long sentences. Compare: “I fired him even though I didn’t want to because he gave me no choice.” “I fired him. I didn’t want to. He gave me no choice.” Shorter sentences pack a punch. Longer sentences use connectives like “because,” which create a hierarchy among the ideas, subordinating some information in a way similar to what we saw in our first tip.

Even people with excellent language and punctuation skills can be stumped when it’s time to decide whether a term should be one word, two words or hyphenated.

3. Choose the most specific and tangible nouns and verbs. Compare “Those who visit the restaurant can choose from a variety of lunch and dinner options” with “Diners can dig in to hot or cold sandwiches, pasta or Sue’s famous Cobb salad.” Amateurs tend to crank out sentences like the first example. Pros lean toward the latter.

4. Deleting adverbs that don’t add information. In a sentence like “Mary quickly ran out the door,” the adverb adds nothing. Running is, by definition, quick. Now look at “Mary quickly closed her laptop.” You can close a laptop slowly or quickly. So “quickly” adds more information to the action. In the process, it raises the intriguing question: What is Mary hiding?

5. Fix unclear antecedents. In a sentence like, “Bob and Lou both regretted his decision,” the possessive pronoun “his” could be a reference to either Bob or Lou. We don’t know who made the bad decision. It’s easy to forget that the reader isn’t in your head, so make sure it’s clear what each pronoun refers to: Bob and Lou both regretted Bob’s decision.

6. Dispense with state-of-mind verbs. If you ever have the dubious pleasure of reading a friend’s unpublished novel or memoir, chances are you’ll see a lot of sentences like “Ron realized he was in love.” But if you pay close attention to professionally published writing — especially good writing — you’ll see that verbs like “realized” and “knew” and “understood” and “thought” don’t come up as much. Instead, pros cut to the chase: “Ron was in love.”

7. Ditch connective words and phrases. “The park is open from dusk till dawn Monday through Friday. In addition to being open on weekdays, the park is open even longer on weekends: till 10 p.m.” Connectives like “in addition to” force you to restate something you’ve just said. “Though it is true that,” “in light of the fact that” and “despite it being true that” are a few more examples of terms that can bog down an otherwise good sentence.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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