Is your writing feeling a bit flabby and out of shape? Treat it to a one-month detox treatment by following these three rules.
The active voice is more direct, dynamic and accountable. ‘The Government took no action’ is better than ‘No action was taken’ or ‘No action was taken by the Government’.
It’s far better to have people or organisations taking action than to describe things as mysteriously happening or being done. When you use the active voice, you sometimes find an even simpler way of expressing yourself.
A payment was made by the chief executive last week.
The chief executive made a payment last week.
which you can then change to
The chief executive paid last week.
Few of the people you write for are psychic or have infallible memories. If you put the main part of the sentence at the end, they will have to read to the end before they can start to understand the beginning.
This mental back-flip could be all it takes to confuse them, distract them, or put them off.
Structuring sentences logically will:
• keep your readers reading
• make sure they need to read each sentence only once
• get your message across.
Always put the primary clause first. Or, in other words, put the ‘what’ before the ‘why’.
So, rather than
In order to achieve these targets within the specified timeframe, we need to begin the training now.
We need to begin the training now, in order to achieve these targets within the specified timeframe.
or, even better (see ‘Lose the padding’, below)
We need to begin the training now, so we can hit our targets on time.
Also, try to stick to the rule of ‘one sentence = one idea’. Aim for an average sentence length of 15-20 words; an absolute maximum of 35. Remember, there is no limit to the number of full stops you can use.
Lose the padding
Never mistake the ability to use elaborate phrases for a sign of intellect. What’s the point of using your brain to translate a short word into a long one, so that your readers have to use their brains to translate it back again – before they even start to take in your message?
It’s also a fallacy that short words are somehow lightweight or less useful. In fact, they are often the most powerful. No one is saying that you have to use them all the time – that would be boring. But if you want your sentences to have more impact, streamline them by doing these three simple things:
• cut out redundant words
• replace long words with short ones
• replace long phrases with short ones.
After the detox
Just as with healthy eating and exercise regimes, the secrets of writing well in the long term are to enjoy it and to let yourself experiment. Use this month as an opportunity to clamp down on any bad writing habits you’ve slipped into by really focusing on these three points. But that doesn’t mean that you can never again use the passive voice or your favourite long word.
This month, we fast. In the long term, it’s all about the moderation.
Meanwhile, here’s a quick four-point exercise to ponder as you crunch your carrots:
1. Reduce this sentence from nine words to five: It is possible that the Chancellor will cut taxes.
2. Rewrite this sentence without the nominalisation (-tion words): It was his conviction that the provision of bicycles to law officers would lead to a reduction in crime.
3. Cut two words out of this sentence: Sarah Thompson, who is our marketing director, will lead the discussion.
4. Rewrite this sentence without the prepositions (‘of’, ‘on’, ‘in’, ‘by’, ‘to’): The recession is of great concern to small-business owners.
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