Quick and dirty tips for clear writing

Writers spend a lifetime practicing the art of selecting and rearranging words (and then rearranging them again). Not everyone has a lifetime to devote to this practice, but many have a desire to improve the words they put to paper and screen.

Read on for three quick and dirty tips to improve your writing. The recommendations I've chosen are a good start to achieving stronger, clearer, and more persuasive communication. I hope you'll agree that these tips are not intimidating — an intimate knowledge of grammar is not required — and they'll bring about excellent results.

1. Use Strong Verbs (AKA Avoid the Verb To Be)
Is. Are. Was. Were.
Read through a piece of your writing — an email, letter, report — and count the number of times you used the verb "to be." Don't feel bad if it's everywhere. It's the verb that's top of mind; it's the most comfortable, reliable, and easy to use.

At first glance (and at first draft), "to be" feels like the best choice — to me, too. My advice to you is to make an effort to re-write some of your sentences in which "to be" appears. Exchange it for a stronger verb, a more descriptive one that shows action. The CAIN Project through Rice University provides a list of active, precise verbs you can consult when selecting a replacement.

E.g.
Original: The book is interesting; the characters are engaging.

Edit: The book captured my attention; I felt I wanted to learn more about the characters.

2. Remove Needless Words
Just. So. Really. Very.
I'm not the first to hate on these words, but I hope, if you've stumbled on my page, you'll believe me when I say these words are seldom needed.

Through informal investigations, I've concluded people choose to use "just," "really," "very," and "so" because they fear their message isn't strong enough without them. The writer uses those adverbs to reassure herself that the meaning of her text will be better understood by the reader if it is emphasized with them. In other words, I suspect they are chosen to satisfy the reader's feelings of doubt about the persuasiveness of the sentence, not to help clarify the meaning for the reader.

What is the difference between grateful and very grateful? Between sorry and so sorry? Is there a difference? If the writer intends there to be a difference, then the best thing to do to is to choose a better word, a more precise word. If by "really sad" you mean "devastated," then use devastated.

In practice, the above adverbs dilute the message; they don't clarify or emphasize it.

E.g.
Version 1: Thank you for making the time to visit our program and allowing us to show you around. We are grateful we could host you.

Version 2: Thank you so much for making the time to visit our program and allowing us to show you around. We are very grateful we could host you.

Given you read the simpler sentence first, did you feel anything was lacking? Did it seem insincere when you read it? Unclear? Did you doubt the writer's intention?

Then, did version 2 seem more genuine because of the adverbs? Certainly, version 2 mimics our speech patterns; we use those adverbs gratuitously in speech. But when you only read Version 1 without Version 2, the meaning is clear without the extra words.

I'll give you another example to consider:

Version 1: Thank you for having me over for dinner. It was lovely to see you.

Version 2: I just wanted to say thank you for having me over for dinner. It was really nice to see you.

I see this use of the word "just" a lot in emails. If you catch yourself writing "I just wanted to...", I encourage you to cut out those needless words.

I also see the word "just" used to intentionally dull a message: "Just wanted to ask if I could have Friday off." Meekness isn't communicated through the use of "just" in email — in person, yes, you could make a case for it. In writing, choose the stronger sentence: "May I please have Friday off?"

3. Use Exclamation Marks Sparingly
Personal Email? Go for it! Personal Facebook post? Why not! Tweet? Well, if you think it helps!

There is a time and place for exclamation marks. (True expressions of surprise, for one. Whoa! Oh!)  Professional writing, professional social media posts, professional emails are not the right places for exclamation marks. In those instances, they should be used sparingly.

Like #2 above, I think people overuse exclamation marks for themselves, not for the reader. The writer wishes the reader to be excited, to correctly interpret the intended tone of the sentence. But it's not the role of the exclamation mark — or any punctuation mark — to communicate tone, mood, intention. That's what words do.

The best article I've read about the overuse of the exclamation mark is this brilliant piece by Beth Dunn. Oh, did I laugh reading this piece. I asked Beth if she sold prints of the accompanying flowchart, so I could frame it. She doesn't — yet.


So there you have it. Three quick and dirty tips for you to try out. Practice those, and see what you think of your writing. And let me know how it goes.

Caribou Creative