Some Easy Ways to Strengthen Your Writing

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History

To Be and Passive Constructions

Perhaps the easiest way to improve your style by giving it more strength and clarity lies in abandoning excessive uses of "to be," which inevitably pad out and weaken writing. First, turn passive to active constructions:

BEFORE: "The naturally unifying force of the couplet is used throughout The Rape of the Lock to illustrate incongruities."

AFTER: "ThroughoutThe Rape of the Lock the naturally unifying force of the couplet illustrates incongruities . . . "

WEAK: "values that are distorted by human pride"

STRONG: "values that pride distorts."

WEAK: "Lines are often split with caesurae."

STRONG: "Caesurae often split lines."

To rid your writing of these constructions requires rethinking relations between things. Try, for example, to look for the verbs underlying -ion nouns and similar abstractions:

BEFORE: "It is just a slight exaggeration of the oppression faced by the poor in Ireland."

AFTER: It just slightly exaggerates the oppression the poor face in Ireland." [This version also avoids "exaggeraTION of the oppressION".]

BEFORE: "The whole essay, in fact, is an example of . . . "

AFTER: "The whole essay, in fact, exemplifies . . . "

Avoid "It is . . . that (which)" constructions.

Similarly, avoid stringing together clumps of abstract nouns with prepositions:

The gravity of this statement in the midst of a poem about the snipping of a strand of hair creates a jarring realization of concealment of importance by preoccupation with social superficiality.

Note the prepositions ganging up on that single verb: The gravity of this statement in the midst of a poem about the snipping of a strand of hair creates a jarring realization of concealment of importance by preoccupation with social superficiality.

I had planned to rewrite this sentence from an essay by student in order to show how you can add more energy and clarity to your writing by transforming abstract nouns into verbs, but after several attempts, I discovered that I could not make out what this sentence means. I had such difficulty deciphering the sentence because the emphasis upon abstract nouns in the absence of transitive verbs prevents me from finding out who does what to whom. This kind of writing, in other words, omits crucial information. For example, to whom does "preoccupation" refer? Pope, the reader, some of the characters in the poem, all of them?

Try varying the structure of your sentences. If you find that your sentences follow the following formula -- SUBJECT VERB1 [clause] and VERB2 [clause] -- use several alternative structures.

BORING when repeated too often: "Dickens had felt himself alone and abandoned as a child AND he made many of his protagonists orphans."

(a) Alternative that emphasizes subordination of one thought or fact to another: "Dickens, WHO had felt himself alone and abandoned, made many of his protagonists orphans."

(b) Alternative that emphasizes causality: "BECAUSE Dickens felt abandoned as a child, he made many of his protagonists orphans."

(c) Alternative that emphasizes relations of time or sequence: "AFTER Dickens had felt abandoned as a child, he made many of his protagonists orphans."

Related Resources


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Last modified 11 February 2002