Most writing is neither bad nor good. Instead, the vast majority of it lies somewhere in the middle.
Whether you, the reader, like it boils down to taste. In matters of taste, we’re all experts.
Still, in that vast middle area there invariably are bad sentences, and the skilled self-editor has a vocabulary for describing them.
Here’s how you can identify your own writing problems:
1. Are your sentences too long? Isn’t it harder to read a long sentence than a short one? (Hands up if you survived the 958-word first sentence of Remembrance of Things Past. I know I didn’t.) As well, sentence length is often a “placeholder” for other problems. Are you unduly wordy? Do you have any misplaced modifiers? Are you sure your “sentence” has a subject and a verb? All these issues are easier to miss in long sentences. In short ones, they stand out like a pair of shorts at a funeral. Remember: In our TV- and Internet-focused society, readers respond best to an average sentence length of 14 to 18 words. Note that I said average; don’t make all your sentences exactly the same length.
2. Are your sentences are too similar? Most schools don’t teach grammar these days, so I’m going to keep this really basic. The sentence Madison visited a friend begins with a subject (Madison), includes a verb (visited) and finishes with an object (friend). If all of your sentences are as simple as this, you’ll bore your readers. Use more variety. Perhaps you can begin with a dependent clause: Although she was very tired, Madison visited a friend. Or an infinitive phrase: To avoid doing housework, Madison visited a friend. Or an adverb, Briefly, Madison visited a friend. Or a participial phrase: Hoping to get some emotional support, Madison visited a friend. Don’t bore your readers, or yourself, by repeatedly saying things the same way.
3. Are you inclined to be too abstract? Readers like writing that allows them to engage the mind’s eye. If I write the word dog you will immediately form a visual image—perhaps of your own dog or that of a friend or neighbor. If I write the word existence, what do you picture? If I really push myself, I see a picture of a globe—who knows why?—but that takes real effort. The word doesn’t lend itself to images, and that can make readers feel weary. Instead of writing about abstractions, challenge yourself to include more stories, anecdotes and examples. This will excite your readers and make them more enthusiastic about your writing.
4. Do you use too many unclear antecedents? I know, antecedent is another scary grammar word. Sorry. An antecedent gives meaning to another word. For example, Daphne wrote this column. She wanted to remove the fear of antecedents. The word she is a pronoun; the antecedent is Daphne. When I’m reading stories, I frequently find writers have used pronouns such as it or noun markers such as this, that and these too far from their antecedents. It’s OK to use pronouns, of course, but make sure you’re clear about the antecedents they reference. If you tend to be vague with your antecedents, develop the habit of doing a search (command/control + F) for it, this, that and these, and double-check to ensure the antecedents are obvious.
5. Are you too easily seduced by clichés? I read a New York Times obit on newspaperman Ben Bradlee a while ago. Imagine my chagrin when I encountered the following sentence about Bradlee protégées Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein: Soon they were working the phones, wearing out shoe leather and putting two and two together. These aren’t even truly horrible clichés, but they’re worse than I expect from the Times. When you self-edit, spend at least part of your time extinguishing clichés. If you have trouble finding them, you might want to try using the Cliche Finder, an imperfect but useful tool.
6. Do you fail to use connectors or transitions? I know I’m in the hands of a sophisticated writer when I see words or phrases such as on the other hand, or here for example, or similarly. These transitional words help ease readers’ way, letting them know what to expect in the next sentence. Beginning writers almost universally fail to use enough connectors or transitions.
7. Do you use too much passive voice? Passive sentences hide the leading actor. If that doesn’t make sense to you, here’s a classic example: Mistakes were made. Who made those mistakes? We don’t know. That’s why the sentence is passive. Give the actor the leading role, and voilà, you have a sentence that’s active and easier for the reader to visualize: The Canadian government made mistakes. Not all passive is quite so simple to identify, however. That’s why I suggest using the Hemingway app. This fantastic tool is the best non-human editor I’ve ever seen and will highlight your sins of passivity in bright green. (Note: Passive voice isn’t uniformly bad, but if you can’t recognize it, you shouldn’t be allowed to use it.)
8. Do you have too little to say? This is the most serious problem of all and one I see frequently in many blogs I review. The writer doesn’t have enough material that’s interesting, new or useful. Don’t waste your readers’ time. Know your point or your angle, and deliver it succinctly.
Your writing may be in the middle, but you want it to be aiming toward excellence. Excellence is not an accident; it’s something achieved through habit.
This article originally appeared on The Publication Coach blog.