7 tips to take on bad writing

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.

Five more, which are explored in full here in my recent column, are:

3. Choose the most specific and tangible nouns and verbs.

4. Delete adverbs that don’t add information.

5. Fix unclear antecedents.

6. Dispense with state-of-mind verbs.

7. Ditch connective words and phrases.

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