Students come into our Writing Center every day and ask what they can do to improve their writing NOW. Good writing takes time and practice (and lots of reading) but there are a few things you can do immediately to strengthen your writing and wow your instructor before that next essay is due.
1. Eliminate wordiness. Do you ever get your essays back from instructors with such comments as, “tighten,” “condense,” or “wordy”? What this means is that you are trying to communicate your point with more words than necessary. For example, note the difference in
“It is the opinion of our professor that we have failed to meet his expectations.”
“We have failed to meet our professor’s expectations.”
The second sentence is tighter, uses fewer words, and is stronger and more direct. Just remember, if you can communicate your point in fewer words, do it. Less is more.
2. Eliminate “that.”
“That” is often just a filler word. Look back over an old essay and see how many times you’ve used “that” in a sentence. Would the sentence make sense without that “that.” The last sentence could, and I bet about 75% of yours could too. For instance, look at the following sentence; the first “that” isn’t necessary. The second is:
“I only meant that I didn’t want to write that essay.”
“The only way that I can explain my point is by showing an example.”
See what I mean? Cutting that word out will make your writing more concise. But I needed that last one, and this last one too, so make sure it’s not necessary to communicate meaning.
3. Be careful of piling on the prepositions. What’s a preposition, you ask? Space-related prepositions are anything a squirrel can do to a tree:
A squirrel can go around a tree
behind a tree.
in a tree.
on a tree.
toward a tree.
under a tree.
up a tree.
Once you get on a prepositional roll, it’s hard to stop:
I will stay with the best friend of my sister at the cabin near the river in the valley between the two most beautiful mountains in Wyoming until February despite the weather.
Sentences can go on forever with prepositional phrases, and that isn’t a good thing (see how I needed “that” in the previous sentence?).
4. Throw in an absolute phrase. An absolute phrase works to modify an entire sentence. It consists of a noun plus at least one other word, as shown here:
The hunters rested for a moment in front of the shack, their breaths white in the frosty air.
The first part of the sentence is independent: “The hunters rested for a moment in front of the shack.”
The second part of the sentence modifies the first part: “their breaths (noun) white (adjective) in the frosty air (prep. phrase).
You can move the absolute phrase to the beginning of the sentence as well:
Their breaths white in the frosty air, the hunters rested for a moment in front of the shack.
Throw in some absolute phrases in your narrative essays to make them shine.
Edward loves Bella.
(S) (V) (O)
as opposed to
Bella is loved by Edward.
(O) (V) (S)
Sometimes passive voice is vague or awkward, and often the subject is left out. Politicians love using active voice and use it often:
Bombs were dropped (by who?).
Shots were fired (again, by who?).
Next time you read the paper, see how many times passive voice is used, and ask yourself if you are getting the whole story.
Try these 5 fool-proof techniques with your next assignment and share your results.
(Originally published Nov. 2, 2011)