25 tips to sharpen your writing

Want to learn some ways to strengthen, energize, clarify and trim your works? Here are a few tricks of the trade from a Writer editor
By Ronald Kovach | Published: June 12, 2012


sharp-pencil.ashxDear readers, can we be honest a minute? Isn’t good writing a form of manipulation? True, it sounds a little coarse, certainly not the elevated sort of definition we might prefer. Yet, after nearly 10 years of editing manuscripts at The Writer and many more years of newspaper editing before that, I’ve found it a useful way of thinking about the writer’s task.

I’m using the word in the positive sense of “managing or influencing skillfully.” This is very important business. As a writer, you are managing words and information to be clear, interesting, informative and (possibly) entertaining, and you are skillfully influencing the reader to stay with you.

How you accomplish the latter is by sending good signals throughout a piece of writing, whether it is an article, a short story, a book, a query or a book proposal. Much of this article will be about sending a variety of good signals to readers, but the main signal—for an audience that has more potential distractions than any in history—is: This is an interesting, well-organized piece of writing that will reward your time. Stay with me; you’re in capable hands.

There’s another vital part of skillful manipulation, I would strongly argue: thinking about your reader. This sounds simple, but I think many writing problems start to founder on this shoal. When a writer has tunnel vision, things go wrong. Sometimes badly wrong. It’s what keeps editors in business. It’s why they must sometimes send out 15 editing questions for a single article.

So, having built some framework for this article, let me move on to the bricks —25 of them, to be precise. Here are one editor’s tips on how to trim, tighten, strengthen, clarify and energize your writing. In the process, you’ll do a better job of holding your audience.


Be inviting

1. Be inviting to your tired, option-filled readers. They’ve had a long day. Promise an interesting article at the start with an engaging beginning, fresh information or examples, good flow, good organization and clean writing. Try to provide up high some foretaste of the goodies ahead—the benefits the reader will gain or the things they’ll learn by staying with your piece.

2. Don’t gunk up the lead. If you feel, for example, that your lead must somehow reference the long, clunky name of some organization or someone’s long title, resist the urge! Just find a generic phrase that describes the group or title in the lead and fold in the full reference later in the article. Don’t bog your poor readers down at the start.

3. Watch for the telling details, anecdotes and quotes that reveal personality and bring a subject to life. Often these drop right in your lap, as they did for me when I wrote a feature article about Anne Lamott for The Writer. Besides doing a long interview with her, I observed her during two appearances in Minneapolis. As anyone who’s seen Lamott in person can attest, before a big audience she can be a real hoot. Here are the opening paragraphs of my anecdotal lead:

It is a chilly November night at a temple in suburban Minneapolis and Anne Lamott, bestselling writer and outspoken Christian, rather incongruously is keeping a synagogue full of 900 listeners in the palm of her hand for nearly two hours. Self-assured and witty, with a fine sense of comedic timing and perfectly pitched sarcasm, this dreadlocked woman in blue jeans, sweater and clogs speaks of things close to her heart, or just on her mind.

“The theme of my life,” she says, “is the insistence on knowing what happened, and saying it out loud.” She throws some darts at Republicans, tells of the wounds of a difficult childhood and her love for her friends, touches on her twin demons, alcohol and drug abuse. “Everything I’ve let go of,” she says, “has claw marks on it.” She describes the pleasures and challenges of her writing life, deplores society’s insistence on quickie-grieving, does a riff on the American obsession with body image. “When you get to heaven and see what really matters,” she says to laughter, “what your butt looks like is about number 180.”

When your subject utters quotes like “Everything I’ve let go of has claw marks on it,” this is, for a writer, like manna from heaven. You must get material like this down. The light in your writer brain that signals Good stuff! should be blinking wildly.

4. Try to craft an opening that engages the reader’s senses or sense of drama. In the Anne Lamott lead, I tried to help readers see and hear her, and enjoy some humor, irony and personality. Look at this lead in Vanity Fair by one of my favorite magazine writers, William Langewiesche, about the collision in 2006 between a private jet and a Boeing 737 carrying 154 people high above the Amazon:

What were the odds? There were so many chances for the accident not to occur —so many ways to break the chain that led to it—that a crash investigator later told me it seemed the Devil himself was at play.

And how can you not keep reading Mark Bowden’s article in The Atlantic about the insidious Conficker computer virus when the piece starts like this:

The first surprising thing about the worm that landed in Philip Porras’s digital petri dish 18 months ago was how fast it grew.

5. Does the flow of material and use   of transitions move readers gracefully through your work—or are you jerking them this way and that? The answer reflects how well you’ve organized your material.

Have you gone off on tangents without good cause? If the cause is good, have you smoothly knitted the tangential material into the rest of the narrative flow and given the reader some sense of why it’s necessary?


Be clear

6. Have you kept your readers in mind? If you really cared about them, would you write this: Johns Hopkins has a hospital employee relations improvement program? A simple, graceful rewording would be: Johns Hopkins has a program to improve relations with hospital employees.

7. A crucial point: Are you assuming too much pre-knowledge of your subject by the reader? Have you skillfully set up the events and people in your manuscript so that readers can put them into some kind of context and appreciate their significance? Or have you introduced characters, events and other references out of left field, with no prior reference and no set-up, and expected the reader to just “get it”?

8. A common mistake, even with experienced writers, is failing to provide a specificexample to bring out a point. This keeps the writing too general and vague, and nearly always forces the editor to go back to the writer for more. Granted, the problem is often caused when a writer, rightly, is trying to meet a tight word count. But the better solution here is: Provide a good (brief) example to make your point understandable and compress elsewhere.

9. Avoid run-on sentences and overstuffed dashes. Break the poor things up, recast them, or put them out of their misery and start over.

In an article about playwright David Rabe in The New Yorker, the second paragraph reads:

In his writing, Rabe—who has produced a wide-ranging body of distinguished drama (four of his twelve plays have been nominated for Tony Awards, and “Sticks and Bones” won one, in 1972), four finely wrought film adaptations (“Casualties of War,” “Streamers,” “Hurlyburly,” “I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can”), and three works of fiction—plays a primal game; his goal, he has said, is to show how “the past hangs on to you and shows up in spooky ways.”

I hear sentences like this gasping for relief. Or maybe it’s the groan of readers, wondering, by the time they finally get to the phrase “plays a primal game,” what on earth the sentence was about, since 50 words and seven lines of type separate subject and verb. Overstuffed dashes usually force readers to jump back to the beginning of the sentence to remind themselves what it was about. That’s annoying and usually unnecessary. Such sentences can easily be reworded.

I recently went looking for a good biography of the famous Boston art collector Isabella Gardner and thought I had found one until I noticed a complaint about its writing quality at Amazon. I came upon this miserable quotation from the book, which refers to a religious figure named Arthur Crawshay Hall:

A number of Hall’s letters to her survive in her papers and his direct, no-nonsense requests for money for financial aid of all sorts, and Gardner’s openhanded response, as well as her concerns for his health and consequent invitations to rest up at her country estate, all argue for a close mutual understanding and sympathy—as, above all, does the fact—utterly overlooked and ignored until now—that this Oxford graduate’s most widely read book of readings was dedicated to Isabella Gardner—a dedication as key to understanding Gardner’s role in Boston as the many better-known dedications of literary and musical works to her of which so much is always made.

If an author writes that unclearly, can we trust the clarity of his thought?
A simple recasting of such endless sentences can work miracles for clarity. Consider this example from an otherwise interesting article about media mogul Rupert Murdoch in Vanity Fair:

From the failure of Delphi, one of the first public-access Internet providers, in 1993, to iGuide, the precursor to Yahoo and Google, which closed within months of its launch, to his son James’s aborted Internet-investing spree in the late 90s, to the great promise of MySpace, which was shortly flattened by Facebook, to the second launch of Pagesix.com, which Murdoch closed this year, after four months of operation, Murdoch’s Internet starts and stops have engendered at News Corp., in the description of Peter Bale, who once ran the Web site of The Times of London and now runs MSN in the U.K., a relative “fear or abhorrence of technology.”

This sentence is 109 words long and filled with asides that badly slow it down and delay its meaning. It’s also what I call a back-loaded sentence, not signaling its basic point until the end. If you respect your readers, do you really want to do that? There’s a place for such sentences, of course, but they can also exhaust and confuse readers if badly done. There’s an easy solution here. Something like this:

[Rupert] Murdoch’s Internet starts and stops have engendered at News Corp. a relative “fear or abhorrence of technology,” according to Peter Bale, who once ran the website of The Times of London and now runs MSN in the U.K. Consider these examples: [etc.]

There, was that so hard?

10. Being a good explainer is an art, and an important part of good nonfiction writing.Remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska (you know, the one we used to think was really big)? A reporter described the crude oil fouling beaches there as “the texture of mayonnaise.” Perfect!

In Population: 485, writer Michael Perry—who also works as a volunteer firefighter and EMT—makes fire a demonic, living thing with telling word choices, simile and strong verbs. He describes the volatile stages of a fire that result in a backdraft:

If a fire in a tightly sealed house cycles through the phases and depletes the available oxygen, it will settle into a brooding stasis. The house groans for air, and if you stick your ax through the door, you’ll be blown across the yard like a flaming marshmallow out a blast furnace.

There’s an explanation that lingers.


Add energy to your sentences


11. The importance of strong, and preferably fresh, verbs—as seen in the house “groaning” for air—is so crucial to good writing that (I hope) it scarcely needs noting for readers of this magazine.
 Indeed, it’s not a bad idea to do a final check of your manuscript looking at nothing but verb choice.

Sometimes you can reword an awkward sentence and simply let verbs carry the weight—they’re Olympic lifters. Here’s a small change that not only tightens but adds a little zest:

BEFORE: For instance, I was once hired to ghostwrite an article on the problem of spoilage of fine wines from cork rot.

AFTER: For instance, I was once hired to ghostwrite an article on how cork rot spoils fine wines.

12. Unnecessary use of the passive voice is also a much-noted evil, and for good reason. When there is not a valid reason to use one, each passive construction is like a little black hole in your manuscript, sucking the energy right out of a sentence. Even Thomas Jefferson knew this. In the Declaration of Independence (as noted by the late wordsmith Richard L. Tobin), he did not write, “Our seas have been plundered by King George III, our coasts have been ravished, our towns have been burned, and the lives of our people have been destroyed.” Instead he made it: “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.”

13. Think about your word order. Consider not beginning a sentence or paragraph with the name and title of someone saying something, and instead placing this tag elsewhere in the sentence. A name and title—aka the attribution phrase—is a necessary but extremely boringpart of a sentence. Beginning with the substance of what someone says, or the start of a quotation, can add energy and impact to a sentence.

Another example of changing word order to add energy relates to the word however, as William Zinsser notes in his wonderful classic, On Writing Well. Most of the time that word should not be placed at the beginning or end of a sentence because it loses a little pop.

As Zinsser put it perfectly, begin a sentence with however and “it hangs there like a wet dishrag”; end it with however and by that time the word “has lost its ‘howeverness.’ ”

14. Fiction writers seem much more aware than nonfiction writers of the impact that comes from ending a sentence or paragraph with some pop—when the material in that sentence is worthy of a good ending (otherwise it can seem silly or pompous). That pop is important: It sends readers the subliminal message This is interesting/This is enjoyableand it pulls them ahead with curiosity into the next sentence or paragraph. It’s a matter of placement.

Among the nonfiction writers who understand and practice the value of “pop endings” are our fine narrative historians, including David McCullough and Nathaniel Philbrick. Another isNew York Times critic Andrew Solomon, who a few years back wrote memorably about the great jazz pianist Keith Jarrett and his well-known gyrations in concert. His lead:

Keith Jarrett has a serious post-whiplash condition right now, which he views as an occupational hazard. Most pianists do not have his back and neck problems, but most pianists, even if they draw on the full weight of their bodies, manage to constrict the ostentation of movement to their hands and arms and shoulders and feet. Keith Jarrett takes on the piano with all his self, the self of a raging spirit and of a small body, like Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord. During his solo improvisation concerts of the 1970’s, he would go into a state of what appeared to be ecstatic pain. While playing the notes urgently and self-referentially, he would slide off the bench so that he was sometimes on top of the piano and sometimes beneath it and most often wrapped around it. His face could not possibly have gone through a more anguished and peculiar range of expressions; he grunted and groaned audibly, periodically shaking with spasms and shivers. He looked as though he were giving birth to a square baby.

The last sentence of that lead is as perfectly placed and rhythmic as Jarrett’s notes.
In the Anne Lamott excerpt earlier in this article, consider what happens if you put the attribution at the end of this quote: “Everything I’ve let go of has claw marks on it,” she says. The dreaded, but necessary, attribution phrase at the end sucks the grit and drama right out of the “claw mark” ending. Instead make it: “Everything I’ve let go of,” she says, “has claw marks on it.”

In the same Lamott passage, consider what happens if you end one of
the key lead paragraphs with the attribution phrase, like this: “When you get to heaven and see what really matters, what your butt looks like is about number 180,” she says to laughter. The attribution phrase at the end eliminates the pop and humor of the “butt quote”—as well as a bit of entertainment value that will pull readers ahead into the story. Instead make it, “When you get to heaven and see what really matters,” she says to laughter, “what your butt looks like is about number 180.” Pop!

15. Consider the beauty of the short and ultra-short sentence put in just the right place.Short sentences—if not overused—can greatly help your writing rhythm and much else. They’re a key element in making New York Times columnist David Brooks, for example, so readable (regardless of the reader’s political stance). Here is Brooks on our nation’s economic woes:

But the overall message is: Don’t be arrogant. This year, don’t engage in reckless new borrowing or reckless new cutting. Focus on the fundamentals. Cut programs that don’t enhance productivity. Spend more on those that do.

Edna Buchanan, a legendary police reporter for The Miami Herald who is now a suspense novelist, is famous in this regard. Here’s how she began an article about a lovers’ quarrel:

The man she loved slapped her face. Furious, she says she told him never, ever to do that again. ‘What are you going to do, kill me?’ he asked, and handed her a gun. “Here, kill me,” he challenged. She did.

Trim and tighten your writing

You’re on deadline and over the assigned word count. (How many times has thishappened?) Most editors get very good with the scalpel as a matter of deadline survival, so why not pick up a few tricks from them? Before you fire up the chain saw for a nasty chop, look for these potentially trimmable targets first:

16.  If there’s a point you feel strongly about, it could be a sign you’ve gone on too long about it. Look for repetition or too much elaboration. Make your point clearly, with the necessary vigor, then move on. Readers will get it.

17.  The word and often signals multiple examples. Can you lose a few?

18.  Something in parentheses is often a side point or an aside of marginal quality. Is it crucial to your readers?

19.  Beware a writer’s occupational hazard (in both nonfiction and historical fiction): the temptation to empty one’s notebook and artlessly commit an “information dump.” Are you guilty?

20.  Have you provided peripheral information or gone off on tangents? If so, how crucial is this material? (Can you leave it out of the print version of your article and have the publication post the extra material on its website?)

21.  The language is full of wordy phrases that needlessly clutter. One of my own pet peeves is vast majority of, as in The vast majority of voters prefer competence and honesty.Nearly all the time you can simply say most, losing fat and gaining energy. Most of the time you can say about instead of approximately. Most of the time you can say because or sinceinstead of as a result of or due to the fact thatIn spite of the fact that can be expressed simply as Although. (For plenty more examples, just google “wordy phrases.”)

22. Have you been alert for wordy sentences? Some examples:

BEFORE: They will file the appropriate document in the event that they are unable to meet the deadline.
AFTER: They’ll file the appropriate document if they can’t meet the deadline.

BEFORE: The fact that he had not succeeded was testament to the fact that he was unqualified for the job.
AFTER: His failure showed he was unqualified for the job.

Similarly, watch for phrases that add nothing to the meaning of a sentence: In a very real sense, this policy works to the detriment of those it is supposed to help. And avoid redundancies that needlessly pad, like these: basic necessityfuture plansmutual agreement.

23. Whenever possible, try to cast your sentences in a positive form, to say what something is, rather than what it isn’t. It’ll add energy and assertiveness to your sentences as well as tighten them. The reader will get your point much more quickly and be pulled forward into your next sentence.

BEFORE: Despite his high-Tory credentials, the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper did not command much affection in the corridors of power.
AFTER: Despite his high-Tory credentials, the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper  commanded little affection in the corridors of power.

BEFORE: He did not think that studying Latin was of much use.
AFTER: He thought the study of Latin useless.

24. No article about sharpening your writing would be complete without a scolding about sloppy proofreading of final drafts. The nagging wouldn’t be needed if editors didn’t see considerable carelessness, even from experienced freelance writers. This problem has easy solutions.

First, recognize that you, the writer, are the first copy editor, not the editor. This means that in addition to carefully examining your punctuation and grammar one last time, you check all the spellings and facts. Have you safety-checked the spelling of both first and last names, even if you’re “sure” of them? Is it Steven or Stephen? Barbara Streisand or Barbra Streisand? Jimmy Buffet or Jimmy Buffett? With trade names, is it Blackberry or BlackBerry? Iphone or iPhone?

Have you checked the dates of historic events, official titles of people, and the exact titles of books and other publications? Have you meticulously used your computer’s spell-checker—but not depended on it to know the difference between “deer” and “dear”? Have you been on the alert for tricky word pairs—complementary/complimentaryallude/elude,appraise/apprisedisinterested/uninterested)? (I’m still smarting, years later, from sliding right over this one: “He wrote the book’s forward.”)

Another remedy for sloppy proofreading is ridiculously simple, yet often violated, even by professional copy editors: Slow down and make sure you read every word. The eye and brain love to get ahead of things and start skipping.

25. Have you cut all the words you can but are still desperate to cut more? See if you can trim off or compress the end of the article. This option varies greatly with the publication and type of article, but in a very straightforward, information-driven publication, you can sometimes lose the conclusion without seeming too abrupt. I just have.

Ron Kovach is The Writer‘s senior editor. He worked for 24 years in newspapers in a variety of editorial roles before coming to the magazine.