Tips to Better Writing
(Most of the sentences below come from student papers.)

1. Write more like you talk.

Notice I didn't say write exactly like you talk (especially if you are fond of saying things like "English sucks.") But most students aren't content to use words they feel comfortable with. They want to impress the teacher with verbal explosions.

Faulty:   The ingredients of our conversation consisted of a variety of subjects.

Nobody talks like that. Such sentences send English teachers groping for the aspirin (sometimes the whisky) bottle.

Better:   We talked about several things.

Better yet: We talked about where we were going to college and why.

2. Begin by telling us something we don't already know.

Faulty: Abortion is a controversial issue in today's society.

Faulty: Many students find the transition from high school to college difficult.

True, but obvious. Why should readers spend slices of their lives reading something they already know?

Better: Teachers don't prepare students for the transition from high school to college.

This tells us something about the writer's attitude we didn't know before. (And of course, when in doubt, blame the teachers.)

Better: I first kissed a girl in seventh grade.

This is certainly something we didn't know. You have aroused our interest. Why were you kissing girls at such a tender age? Why weren't you memorizing comma rules or learning the rudiments of linear equations? You have something to build on.

I know what you are thinking. "But my teacher said to start general and get specific." OK, but don't start so general that you put us to sleep. After all, telling us that you kissed a girl in seventh grade isn't very specific. You can elaborate with the tawdry details.

3. Omit unnecessary words.

Faulty: I tend to be a little wordy at times. (9 words)

Better: I am sometimes wordy. (4 words)

Faulty: There are many people who do not appreciate English teachers. (10 words)

Better: Many people do not appreciate English teachers. (7 words)

Faulty: The reason that many English teachers are lonely is because people are afraid to talk to them. (17 words)

Better: English teachers are lonely because people are afraid to talk to them. (12 words)

Notice it's the little words ("tend to," "a little," "there are") which often bog down a sentence.

You may be thinking, "So what? We are only talking about a few words." That's true, but multiply that over an entire paper or an entire semester. Pretty soon you are wasting the reader's time. Some English teachers would rather be playing golf or surfing the Internet (nobody I know, of course)

4. Use "I" when appropriate.

Admittedly, you'd better check with your teacher on this one. "I" is more appropriate in some contexts than others. If you are summarizing historians' opinions about Napoleon, it may be appropriate to avoid "I."

For many topics, however, using "I" is both necessary and helpful. If you stayed up all night merry-making before your first math test and failed it, you should write honestly about it.

Faulty: One can easily fail a math test by partying all night and not studying.

Better: I failed my first math test because I stayed up all night and didn't study.

5. Don't overuse "would" and "could."

Faulty: When I was younger, I would eat pizza for breakfast.

In addition to the gastric distress implied here, it's too wordy. To improve, say this:

Better: When I was younger, I ate pizza for breakfast.

Faulty: During the test, I could see that I hadn't studied enough.

Psychologists call this "remorse," but that's another topic. To improve, say this:

During the test, I realized that I hadn't studied enough.

Use single word, action verbs when you can.

6. Use active voice most of the time.

I know, I know. You are embarrassed to admit it, but you've never understood the difference between active and passive voice. It's easy. Look at the examples below.

Active: I love you.

Passive: You are loved by me.

As you can see, people who use active voice live full, romantic lives, while those who use passive voice are rejected and lonely.

Active voice uses crisp, action verbs. Passive voice is watered down by unnecessary helpers.

The subjects in active voice statements are doing things--chasing girls, building houses, writing novels. The subjects in passive voice statements are standing around with their hands in their pockets waiting for something to happen.

Here are some other examples:

Passive: The lecture was delivered in a tedious way.

Active: The teacher lectured tediously.

(Depending on the context, it might be wise not to mention slumbering heads hitting the desks with thuds.)

Passive: Almost any composition can be picked apart by a teacher.

Active: Teachers can pick apart almost any composition.

(Most of them don't, however.)

Passive: Mistakes were made.

(Politicans [and students and teachers, for that matter] love this one because it doesn't mention who made the mistakes.)

Active: I made mistakes.

In the Equal Time Department
Sometimes we should use passive voice.

Passive: The streets are littered with debris.

(We don't know who the clods are that littered the streets,and it is unimportant. The streets are a mess, and that's point.)

The bad news is. . .

If you master these and three or four thousand other minor things, you will write perfectly.

The good news is. . .

If you just pay attention to these things, you will write a lot better.

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