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Guide to Better Writing

Expanded Articles on DAS' Top Three Writing Tips

So, you want to become a better writer.

Maybe you even want ​to write your novel and get that villa in the Aegean you've had your eye on. Or maybe you just want your writing to say good things about you, your training and your organization.

If you're serious about becoming a better writer, start following this simple rule: Write in the active voice.

If you're like most people, you​ don't really know what the active voice is. You were absent that day, right?

For starters, the active voice is the opposite of the passive voice, in which the subject of a sentence plays a passive role, because something else acts upon it -- exactly the kind of grammarian flapdoodle nobody remembers.

So forget all that. Just learn to recognize and avoid the passive voice. Do this, and you'll take a giant step toward more forceful, more persuasive writing.

Here's how to recognize the passive voice: Look for forms of the verb to be that appear in combination with other verbs. These other verbs often appear with the ending "ing," but not always.

Everybody knows the forms of the verb to be:  is, am, are, was, were, be and been.

Grammar school stuff.

Check out this example of a sentence in the passive voice: "The rules were issued by the Department of Administrative Services on February 1."

Notice that the verb issued appears with a form of the verb to be, which is were in this case. The subject of the sentence is rules, but something else acts upon it (the Department of Administrative Services).

To convert this sentence to the active voice, simply get rid of the form of the verb to be, and rewrite it with the subject that actually does something:

"The Department of Administrative Services issued the new rules on February 1."

The active voice lets you express the idea more forcefully, using fewer words. Better still, it tells you exactly who or what performed the action. Simple, eh?

Check out the next egregious example of the passive voice:

"The Department of Administrative Services will be issuing rules on February 1."

In this one, the subject doesn't even act. It simply exists, like a dead bug. Note, too, that the verb issuing appears with a form of the dreaded verb to be, which in this case is be.

To fix it, rewrite the sentence with an active verb, dropping the "ing" form:

"The Department of Administrative Services will issue rules on February 1."

The new sentence saves words and doesn't dilute the verb issue with a form of the verb to be. Sweet.

Studies have shown that passive writing tires the reader and dulls the meaning of the work. Most readers simply won't finish a lengthy piece laden with the passive voice. And because editors know the passive voice adds words to a sentence and obscures the meaning, they often reject otherwise good work, since column inches are valuable.

If you're serious about improving your writing, work at using the active voice. Remember: Writing in the passive is like wearing a sandwich board that says, "I'm an amateur!".​

​​Want to become a better writer?  

You can make a great start by shortening your sentences. A "run-on" sentence tires a reader's brain, requiring mental gymnastics to get the meaning. Nobody wants that.

Try this: Limit every sentence to one independent clause that expresses one idea. An independent clause, as you'll recall from high school English, has both a subject and a verb. It can stand alone.

Check out the following run-on sentence:

"The Board of Directors evaluated the two competing proposals, one of which suggested restructuring long-term debt to meet the next two years' cash demands, while the other urged selling off assets in order to retire the debt outright and thus free up next year's revenues for maintaining the current dividend rate as well as meeting cash obligations in the expansion of the Portland plant, and asked each member to sleep on them and present individual recommendations to the meeting to be held the next day with the bankers."

This beast tries to express five separate ideas in the same sentence. The reader loses track of the various ideas before the sentence ends. If you're like most people, you need to go back and reread it to find out just what the heck it means. Not good.

The writer would be far better to devote a single sentence to each of these simple ideas, ending up with a five-sentence paragraph that all readers can easily get their hands around:

"The Board of Directors evaluated two competing proposals. One proposal suggested restructuring long-term debt to meet cash demands over the next two years. Another urged selling off assets to retire debt outright and free up next year's revenues to maintain the current dividend rate. The second proposal would also provide cash to meet obligations in the expansion of the Portland plant. The chair asked members to sleep on the proposals and offer recommendations at the meeting with bankers to be held the next day."

Few readers produce run-on sentences as bad as the foregoing example, but many try to string two or three separate ideas together into one sentence, particularly when writing about administrative rules, regulations, legislation or other complex matters. Others simply "write like they talk," plugging needless words into their sentences.

Here's another helpful hint. Avoid starting sentences with any of the following:

It i​​sIt w​asIt has beenThere has beenThere is​​There was​There are​There wereThere have been

Avoid these combinations like the plague. They add needless complexity to a sentence, and detract from the meaning you want to express.

Here's an example: "There have been numerous cases demonstrating the danger of eating something bigger than your head."

Simplify the sentence by writing it this way: "Numerous cases demonstrate the danger of eating something bigger than your head."

The simpler version expresses the idea more forcefully, using 12 words instead of 15.

Remember: In writing, simpler is usually better.​

​​​You may think this sounds silly, and it may be. But many writers misuse nouns by converting them to adjectives, which -- in addition to being silly -- detracts from otherwise good work.

Check out the following example:

"The lecturer will examine the newly published Department of Labor veterans, minorities and disabled regulations."

This writer has twisted nouns into adjectives, injecting ambiguity into a simple, straightforward thought. "Department of Labor" (a proper noun), "veterans" (a noun), "minorities" (a noun) and "disabled" (a noun that means "disabled people") have all become adjectives that describe "regulations."

When you read this sentence, you consciously or unconsciously wonder whether someone has published "veterans," or whether someone has published "minorities," or whether someone has published "disabled."  Only after a mental double-take does the reader understand the Department of Labor has recently published regulations that concern veterans, minorities and people with disabilities.

In the process of figuring this out, the reader may actually mull the possibility that the regulations themselves might be "disabled," thanks to the order of the words.

To make the sentence comply with our simple rule, we should rewrite it this way:

"The lecturer will examine the Department of Labor's newly published regulations on veterans, minorities and people with disabilities."

No ambiguity here. The reader gets the message with no need for double-takes.

Train yourself to follow this rule by putting the object of the verb ("regulations," in this case) as close as possible to the verb itself ("examine"). The lecturer will examine the regulations, right?

Inserting "the Department of Labor's newly published" between the verb and the object does not obscure the meaning. Why? Because none of the inserted words is a noun. We've turned "Department of Labor" into a possessive by adding an apostrophe s, making it a legitimate adjective; and "newly published" is a word combination used as an adjective to describe "regulations."

In short, we've used no nouns as adjectives. We've completed the sentence with "on veterans, minorities and people with disabilities," which follows the object and plays the role of a descriptive prepositional phrase.

Let's look at one more example: "The plan contained detailed productivity, safety, Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action strategies."

Once again, the writer messes with the reader's mind by using nouns as adjectives. To fix this sentence, rewrite it and put the object of the verb ("strategies") as close as possible to the verb itself ("contained"). Then add words that describe the strategies, putting them in a simple prepositional phrase.

"The plan contained detailed strategies on productivity, safety, Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action."

The important thing to remember is this: Make your meaning clear. Don't load your sentences with nouns that describe other nouns. Use nouns as nouns, and adjectives as adjectives.​


Writing for Easy Reading

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