On writing quickly and well

As an academic writer, I have the luxury of time to develop ideas, do research, draft an article or book chapter, and polish the prose before submitting my work to an editor. As a blogger and writer for online article sites, I must write and publish multiple articles every day.

Part of the business of online writing includes reading and commenting on other people’s blogs and articles, and I have seen a lot of clumsy writing and poor spelling. It’s hard to understand the poor spelling, since now even the most rudimentary word processors have spelling checkers. I hope I can offer some help in improving the writing with these two things I try to keep in mind as I write my first drafts:

Make sure “this” or “that” do not stand alone as the subject of a sentence

“This” and “that” are adjectives. Ask yourself “this what?” or “that what?” The answer to that question is probably the word you want for your subject (or object, for that matter). The strongest, clearest writing comes from the choice of strong nouns and verbs. At best, choosing a vague adjective instead of a noun makes the sentence dull and uninteresting. It can also add unwanted ambiguity.

Try to avoid forms of “to be”

Verbs convey action, most of them, anyway. “To be” means only some kind of existence. It also forms the passive voice. No one can avoid “to be” or passive voice entirely in either speech or writing, but many writers overuse them. Any other verb is stronger than “to be” and active voice is stronger than passive voice.

For writers who want to evade personal responsibility or cloud their meaning, nothing works better than passive voice. Bureaucrats and diplomats excel at using passive verbs to create ambiguity. Bloggers, writers for article sites, or for that matter, term papers or almost anything else, have no need to crawl under the desk like that, but too often and too easily fall into the trap of overusing passive voice.

I try to pay attention as I write, so that every time I start to type any form of “to be,” I ask myself if I can find some better verb; usually I can. (For example, I almost wrote,  I ask myself if there is a better verb; usually there is. See how flabby that makes the sentence? And in a paragraph devoted to rooting out “to be!”)

Even with the speed of writing and publication that online writing demands, I try to set everything aside till the next day, or at least for an hour or two, to see if I can improve the draft. Looking out for these two common traps and choosing good nouns and verbs the first time through makes revision easier. If for some reason I can’t take time to revise, thinking of these concepts from the beginning makes scanning the published article less embarrassing.


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