5 simple ways to tighten your writing

Needless phrases and filler words muck up your message. Hone your verbal scalpel, and excise the excess.

Writing is hard.

You have to make your point succinctly and persuasively, while following a bunch of rules and journalistic standards. Writing is part of a communications professional’s livelihood, and whether it’s a press release, blog post, or LinkedIn update, strong writing can set you—or your clients—apart.

As with any skill, there are lots of little things that can make the difference. Adding certain phrases, eliminating others, and adjusting sentence structures here and there can add up to significant improvements in your writing.

Luckily for me, a former AP reporter and a former Boston Globe editor sit within 20 feet of my desk, so I’ve picked up scraps of wisdom from them and our other talented writers and applied them to my writing. This isn’t a flashback to high school English class; it’s more about refining little things that add up.

Here are examples to help tighten your writing:

1. Remove “that is,” “that are,” “which is” and “which are.”

Did you know you can eliminate these phrases from pretty much all of your writing? Let’s use this recent quote from Sen. John McCain as our guinea pig:

McCain went on to call Russia: “A gas station run by a mafia that is masquerading as a country.”

Now, with my tracked changes:

McCain went on to call Russia: “A gas station run by a mafia that is masquerading as a country.”

The sentence becomes tighter yet retains 100 percent of its meaning. This tip doesn’t always apply—that is to say, there are times you must use these phrases, but it’s a nice way to tighten a sentence and can be useful if you’re trying to cram a thought into 140 characters.

2. Get aggressive.

A lot of us start sentences with phrases like “when it comes to ____” or “in regards to ____.” In most cases there are ways to write a more active and engaging sentence.

When it comes to golf, no one is more recognizable than Tiger Woods.

No golfer is more recognizable than Tiger Woods.

The difference between the two is negligible, but the latter reflects one of those “little things” that add up to tighter writing.

3. Kill the extra commas.

We could write whole articles about comma misuse (and some have), but one quick idea to think about: When starting a sentence with something like “On Tuesday” or “At the end of the month,” you don’t need a comma before the rest of your sentence. If you can put the word or phrase at the end of the sentence without a comma, you can do so at the beginning. “This afternoon I’m going to the movies” or “In 2008 Dustin Pedroia won the AL MVP” is perfectly fine, for example.

4. Get tighter still.

Instead of: Retailers today should be thinking of the mobile device as an asset, not an enemy.

Go with: Retailers today should be think ing of the mobile device as an asset, not an enemy.

Read a lot of newspaper stories and you’ll notice strong, declarative sentences like the latter—a good example to follow.

5. Remember: & ≠ “and.”

This is a minor but important clarification, so unless you’re really tight for space on a tweet, save the ampersands for legal and accounting firms like Dewey, Cheatem & Howe. The cranky grammar people will notice ampersand misuse, whether it’s your boss, your client, or your customer.

These guidelines might seem nitpicky or overanalytical, but often the difference between marginal writing and strong writing is as simple as a few tweaks. What other advice have you found useful?

Jim Crook is an account manager at Inkhouse. A version of this article originally appeared on the Inkhouse blog.

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