Writing Tips

Writing Tips from the book: Style Lessons in Clarity and Grace

  1. Make main characters the subjects of your verbs and make those characters’ important actions your verbs
  2. Don’t revise nominalizations when
    1. they refer to a previous sentence:
      • These arguments all depend on a single unproven claim.
    2. they replace an awkward The fact that:
      • The fact that she strenuously objected impressed me.
      • Her strenuous objections impressed me.
    3. they name what would be the object of a verb:
      • I do not know what she intends.
      • I do not know her intentions.
    4. they name a concept so familiar to your readers that it is a virtual character:
      • Few problems have so divided us as abortion on demand.
      • The Equal Rights Amendment was an issue in past elections.
  3. Use the end of a sentence to introduce long, complex, or otherwise difficult-to-process material, particularly unfamiliar technical terms and new information.
  4. Introduction:
    1. Open the introduction with shared context, a brief statement of what you will go on to qualify or even contradict.
      • Alcohol has been a part of college life for hundreds of years. From football weekends to fraternity parties, college students drink and often drink hard.
    2. Follow that with a statement of the condition of the problem. Introduce it with a but, however, on the other hand, etc. Imagine a So what? after it.
      • But a kind of drinking known as “binge” drinking is spreading through our colleges and universities. Bingers drink quickly not to be sociable but to get drunk or even to pass out. [So what?]
    3. Answer that imagined So what? with a statement of the consequences of that condition, its costs to your readers that they do not want to pay.
      • Bingeing is far from harmless. In the last six months, it has been cited in six deaths, many injuries, and considerable destruction of property. It crosses the line from fun to reckless behavior that kills and injures not just drinkers but those around them.
    4. Conclude with a statement of the solution to the problem, an action that will eliminate or at least ameliorate the costs.
      • We may not be able to stop bingeing entirely, but we must try to control its worst costs by educating students in how to manage its risks.
  5. Plan your paragraphs, sections, and the whole on this model:
    1. Open each unit with a relatively short segment introducing it.
    2. End that segment with a sentence stating the point of that unit.
    3. Toward the end of that point sentence, use key themes that the rest of the unit develops.
    4. In the longer segment that follows, use consistent topics
    5. Repeat key terms introduced toward the end of the opening segment (boldfaced, italicized, and capitalized).
    6. Make every sentence follow the old-new principle.
    7. Order sentences, paragraphs, and sections in a way that readers understand
    8. Make all sentences relevant to the point of the unit that they constitute.
  6. Concision
    1. Meaningless words
      • Some polling sites reported various technical problems, but these did not really affect the election’s actual result.
      • Some polling sites reported technical problems, but these did not affect the election’s result.
    2. Redundant pairs
      • If and when we can define our final aims and goals, each and every member of our group will be ready and willing to offer aid and assistance.
      • If we define our goals, we will all be ready to help.
    3. Redundant modifiers
      • In the business world of today, official governmental red tape seriously destroys initiative among individual businesses.
      • Government red tape destroys business initiative.
    4. Redundant categoriesHedges and intensifiers
      • In the area of education, tight financial conditions are forcing school boards to cut nonessential expenses.
      • Tight finances are forcing school boards to cut nonessentials.
    5. Obvious implications
      • Energy used to power industries and homes will in years to come cost more money.
      • Energy will eventually cost more.
    6. A phrase for a word
      • A sail-powered craft that has turned on its side or completely over must remain buoyant enough so that it will bear the weight of those individuals who were aboard.
      • A capsized sailboat must support those on it.
    7. Indirect negatives
      • There is no reason not to believe that engineering malfunctions in nuclear energy systems cannot be anticipated.
      • Malfunctions in nuclear energy systems will surprise us.
    8. Excessive metadiscourse
      • It is almost certainly the case that totalitarian systems cannot allow a society to have what we would define as stable social relationships.
      • Totalitarianism prevents stable social relationships.
  7. Give sentence a coherent shape
    1. Get quickly to the subject, then to the verb and its object
      1. Avoid long introductory phrases and clauses. Revise them into their own independent clauses
      2. Avoid long subjects. Revise a long subject into an introductory subordinate clause. If the new introductory clause is long, shift it to the end of its sentence. Or just break it out in a sentence of its own.
      3. Avoid interrupting subjects and verbs, and verbs and objects. Move the interrupting element to either the beginning or end of the sentence, depending on what the next sentence is about:
    2. Open the sentence with its point in a short main clause stating the key claim that you want the sentence to make
    3. After the main clause, avoid adding one subordinate clause to another to another to another
      1. Trim relative clauses and break the sentences into two
      2. Extend a sentence with resumptive, summative, or free modifiers
      3. Coordinate elements that are parallel both in grammar and in sense
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