Six Writing Tips

When you write, take care to avoid these pitfalls:

1) Excessive use of the passive. Тhe passive voice should appear rarely. Readers want to know who did whatever you’re talking about. “It is supposed that the famous local muffin recipe first surfaced during the Great Muffin Craze of the 1840s” leaves open the questions, “who supposes this?” and “how did it surface?” Readers want to know. Write instead, “Local residents hypothesize that the famous local muffin recipe first reached the island-nation of Muffinia when the Schmeckt family arrived from Bavaria and opened the island’s first bakery.”

2) Arguing against a make-believe opponent. Sometimes such arguments are called “straw men.” If there’s a point of view that you’re trying to disprove, treat it and its adherents with respect. Don’t make up an imaginary counter argument for the sake of knocking it down, and don’t oversimplify your opponent’s point of view. Readers will trust you more readily if you do justice to the ideas that you’re debunking.

2) Repeated reliance on the same words or phrases. If everything is “huge” or “great,” the words lose their weight. If you’re writing about music, don’t use the word “melodious” more than once. If you’re writing a review of a restaurant, choose one dish to call “delicious” and come up with other adjectives to describe other foods that you liked. You can alternate someone’s name with the person’s profession and write “Dr. Spurillio” in one sentence, “the physician” in the next, “she” in the third, and “the neurologist” in the fourth before cycling back to “Dr. Spurillio.” The verb “is” will, of course, show up fairly often in any English text, but you should use livelier verbs when you can. At the same time, if repetition sounds more natural or significantly clearer, than that is a situation in which you should repeat the name or phrase. Don’t abandon your common sense for a rule that may not be relevant to your situation.

3) Lack of proofreading. It’s hard to reread your own work, and even harder to reread it after you’ve already rewritten it three times. Nonetheless, before it leaves the privacy of your desk to face another pair of eyes, your work deserves one final proofreading pass. If you have access to a careful reader who is willing to do this for you, great! If not, print out your text and read through it one last time. It’s sometimes easier to catch mistakes in print than on a screen.

4) Incorrect use of a word. If you’ve heard a new word a few times and want to try it out, great! But first, check the details of how to use it. Some verbs require specific prepositions, some nouns require “the,” others don’t form a plural, and still others always come with another word from a limited set of options. Enter your word into a search engine and look carefully at the “company” it keeps, i.e. the other words with which writers whose language you trust use it. For example, in the sentence above, a word “keeps” company, but usually only people can keep company. At the same time, although one can either “keep” or “hold onto” a favorite object, one cannot substitute “hold onto” for “keep” in the phrase “to keep company.”

5) Extra words. In particular, choose your adjectives and adverbs with precision and restraint. “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” is okay, but “The fox jumped over the snoring corgi” sounds much better, while “The quick brown fox jumped gleefully over the large, lazy, white schnauzer” is excessive. Read the sentence aloud to yourself a few different ways to decide which version sounds best. Ask yourself whether you need an extra descriptive word, and ask whether a more precise word can substitute for a more general one. Choose language that will keep your readers engaged while maintaining your register. When you edit your work, ask yourself whether you can remove any words without significant loss of meaning.

6) Register inconsistent with your intentions. A register may be formal or informal, poetic or vulgar. Every text has a register, so a writer should give some thought to choosing it. The register for a tweet is usually informal. On the other hand, the register for a letter to the editor of a major newspaper is generally formal, but not necessarily as formal as the register one might use for a letter to the Queen of England. Slang may be appropriate in the lyrics of a pop song, but it doesn’t belong in a legal document or a job application. Creative fiction may achieve greater texture by combining elements of more than one register, but only one will be primary. Mixing registers is acceptable in a limited set of circumstances; for example, it would be inappropriate in an expository essay or a lab report. A blog post may be entirely informal, but still limit slang to words that most people know and don’t find offensive. Another blog post, on the contrary, may contain oodles of obscenities. Before you write something, think about your audience and decide what register will work best for your goals.