As any writer knows, getting that first draft down on paper is only half the battle. Whether you’re writing web copy, a sales email, or a journalistic article, chances are, you and your editing team will go through a few rounds of tweaking and fine-tuning before your work is really done. So, I’ve decided to do a little mini-series to share some of my favorite writing and editing tips.
One of the really cool things about writing is, it’s always a work in progress – there are always things you can do to make your writing clearer, or more powerful, or just more interesting. And, if you write every day, you’re constantly honing your craft. From major rewrites to itty-bitty changes in word choice or punctuation, there are about a million things you can do to change, improve, and streamline your work.
Here are three of my favorite ways to pack more punch into your prose:
1. Pump up your verbs. Once you’ve gotten a first draft down, go back and examine all of the verbs you’ve used. Do they actually say what you want them to say? Are they big, strong verbs that leap off the page and carry your message loud and clear, or are they timid little things that barely make a squeak?
Here’s what I mean:
Photo by jmtimagesOriginal: At the press conference, President Obama went to the podium and talked to reporters about the latest financial news.
Okay, so maybe he did, but the verbs in this sentence are completely lifeless. Talk about a big, fat yawn. Went? Seriously? Blech. How about this:
Better: At the press conference, President Obama strode to the podium and shocked reporters with the latest financial news.
See the difference? Stronger, more specific verbs like “strode” and “shocked” give the sentence new life – and new meaning. Verbs, after all, don’t just tell what someone did – when used correctly, they also give you a clue about how they did it. This sentence would have an entirely different meaning if we’d used the verbs “stomped” and “barked at” or “crept” and “dodged.”
2. Steer clear of the passive voice. Even if you’re ever-vigilant about avoiding the passive voice, occasionally, a sentence or two sneaks under the radar and makes itself at home. For some reason, a lot of beginning writers think that the passive voice makes them sound more, I don’t know . . . writerly? But really, the passive voice just sounds funny and stilted. To a reader, the passive voice lacks the sense of action and the “this-is-happening-right-now-as-we-speak” element. Plus, in real life, we just don’t talk like this. So, unless there is a seriously compelling reason to do otherwise, make sure that all of your sentences are active.
Here’s what I mean:
Original: The blog was written by Stephanie.
Simply flipping the sentence around will give you an active, more immediate sentence:
Better: Stephanie wrote the blog.
3. Go easy on adverbs. I was at the bookstore the other day and I saw a book on writing that was called something like, “If You Catch an Adverb, Kill It.” I haven’t read the book, and I can’t remember who wrote it, but the title alone is a valuable little nugget of wisdom. In general, a strong verb (see tip #1) is WAY better and more effective than almost any adverb.
Of course, there are a zillion exceptions to this, and, of course, every writer uses adverbs to some degree. But use too many, and you’ll start to sound silly. A good example of adverb abuse is Danielle Steele – her books are just bursting with characters who are “sneering menacingly” or “whipping their raven-colored hair about angrily” or “sighing longingly.”
When you’re finished writing, a good idea is to go back through and try to cut as many adverbs as you can. Bust out your thesaurus and find a good, strong verb to use instead.
So: Ramona gazed into Dirk’s eyes dreamily and kissed him sloppily.
Becomes: Ramona fixed her aquamarine eyes on Dirk’s. Their eyes met and their lips joined in a passionate kiss.
Ick. But you get the idea, right?
That’s it for now. Check in next week for more tips, and happy writing!
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