A manager at a leading cultural organisation came to me for help with her writing. In person, she’s a warm, witty expert in her field. But something mysterious happens when she writes. She gets all tied up in knots. Why?
The culprit – as I suspected – lies deep in her past. She’d been traumatised by a scolding English teacher who took a red pen to every “mistake” without even explaining why.
If we’re punished for making mistakes, but nobody tells us what a mistake is in the first place, we’re likely to go crazy. The only way to protect our sanity is to walk away. Sadly, walking away isn’t an option when it comes to writing. Left to battle on alone, we panic. Our drafts don’t get better. They get worse.
This is what was happening to my client. If it’s happening to you too, you’re not alone. Even people who write easily (and well) at home tend to write less well at work, where they’re under pressure from critical managers or donors who can say no.
The symptoms of a stressed-out writer are easy to spot: long sentences that don’t make sense, punctuation slips, and passive verbs. These symptoms all make your writing less clear.
The first thing you should do is look after yourself (get some tea, log onto BorrowMyDoggy – whatever works). When you go back to fix what’s on the page, you have one goal. You’re not writing to impress. You’re not writing to protect yourself from criticism. You’re writing to make something clear.
Here, then, are five things you can do, right away, to give your writing more clarity. If you slog through all five you get a bonus at the end, which may cheer you up.
Top Tip 1: Dump the semi-colon.
The semi-colon (;) is the one with a comma and a dot above it. It has two uses. The first is to separate two sentences; it’s slightly weaker than a full stop, but basically it’s the same (as in this sentence).
The second, more formal use is to separate longer items in a list, or in bullet points.
I have a radical suggestion. Stop using it.
It’s not necessary. It probably makes you (and your reader) anxious. It looks old-fashioned. You’re also more likely to write an incomplete sentence when you use it.
These brilliant early career researchers are the engine of knowledge creation; providing solutions to major issues of importance to science, engineering and society.
See how the semi-colon tripped the writer up? The bit after the semi-colon should be a complete sentence. If you read it aloud, you’ll hear that it isn’t. If the writer had used a comma, however, it would have been fine.
So stick with full stops for separating sentences, colons (:) for introducing examples and explanations, and commas for everything else, including lists. (And if you’re excitable like me — dashes whenever the spirit moves you and exclamation points when you’re feeling lively.) Easy!
Top Tip 2: Never agin use the word “This” as the subject of a sentence.
Using “This” as a subject isn’t a mistake. I did it a few paragraphs ago, and I do it all the time in creative writing.
You’ve got to be a pretty controlled writer, however, to get away with using “This” as the subject in professional writing. I’ve seen hundreds of sentences that begin with the single word “This”, and almost every single one was unclear.
Here’s an example, fresh from a report on a direct response TV campaign:
As we move into the new financial year we will optimise the campaign by honing station selection and gaining a greater understanding of our audience – initial signs show a highly engaged audience keen to know more. This will enable us to improve our communication with them from the time that they sign up and beyond.
We readers must know exactly what “this” refers back to. So what does “This” in the second sentence refer back to? Does “This” mean “honing station selection” or “gaining a greater understanding”? Or both? It’s almost clear, but it’s not 100% crystal clear – and crystal clear is our goal.
You could add a word after “This”. You could say “This understanding”, for example. Or you could rewrite it all, getting rid of the jargon too:
In the new financial year, we will work more closely with stations in regions where we know we have a highly engaged audience. We will discover more about how best to communicate with these people, from the moment when they first sign up.
Top Tip 3: Make your verbs active (and be more personal).
By now you’ll have noticed a pattern in my rewrites. I like the words “I” and “we”, and I like active, not passive, verbs.
Maybe you don’t know the difference between active and passive. It’s worth knowing, because anxious writers almost always fall back on the passive, like nervous puppies rolling over. Passives look more submissive, but they don’t help when the big dogs – your readers — come along.
Just to be clear: a passive verb means the subject of the verb is having something done to it, rather than doing something. (That’s why they look submissive.) Passive verbs use the verb ‘to be’ and can be followed by the word ‘by’, as in this sentence – “can be followed” is passive.
Here’s an example:
- Passive: The dog was patted [by me].
- Active: I patted the dog.
There’s a time and place for passive verbs, especially in technical writing, but if you can change your passives to actives, then do so. You will then be much more likely to have a human being (rather than an abstract noun) be the subject of your sentence, which will warm up your writing. Here’s an example:
The programme is delivered through workshops and classes across the county.
Perfectly correct, perfectly passive – and weak. “The programme” is bland and impersonal, and we don’t know who’s doing the work. You could write:
We deliver the programme through workshops and classes across the county.
If you don’t want to say “We”, then you might throw away the word “programme” and make the verb active:
Workshops and classes take place across the county.
Top Tip 4: Learn what a ‘dangling modifier’ is.
These weird sounding creatures crop up in almost every longer proposal I see. They are mistakes and they’re annoying for the reader, so you need to know what they are and how to fix them.
Many of your longer sentences will have two parts: the main sentence, with a subject and verb, and a part that’s added on. The added on part is the “modifier”. It’s not essential. It just adds extra meaning.
If the modifier is “dangling”, then it isn’t safely anchored to the stronger main part. It’s about to drift away into the open sea.
Here’s an example:
Evaluating the project after one year, the benefits were obvious.
The main sentence is “the benefits were obvious”. This sentence can stand up all by itself. If you read it out loud, it sounds like a proper sentence.
If you read “Evaluating the project after one year” out loud, you’ll hear that it’s not a sentence. It’s the added on bit.
In this example, you (or some other human being) are doing the evaluating – not the benefits. Benefits can’t evaluate anything. The word “evaluating”, which comes from the verb “to evaluate”, is dangling off the edge of the sentence without a subject to anchor it.
Here’s an easy ways to fix this problem:
Evaluating the project after one year, we could see obvious benefits.
“We” did the evaluating as well as the seeing, so in this version everything’s now properly linked to one subject: we.
Here’s another example of a dangling modifier:
Driven crazy by all these rules, school became a nightmare for Jane.
Obviously, the school isn’t driven crazy. Here’s one solution:
Driven crazy by all these rules, Jane found school a total nightmare.
In these examples, the subject of the added-on bit of the sentence – the “modifier” – MUST be the same as the subject of the main sentence. That’s because the modifier begins with a word that’s formed from a verb (“Evaluating”, “driven”).
There’s another way to fix sentences with dangling modifiers. You can use stronger linking words like “when” or “because” for the modifying bit:
When we evaluated the project after one year, the benefits were obvious.
Because there were so many rules, Jane went crazy.
Modifiers that begin with words like “When” or “Because” can have their own subjects and verbs. The subject of the main sentence (“the benefits” or “Jane”) no longer has to do the hard work of carrying the whole sentence. The modifier takes some of the weight off by allowing a secondary subject and verb to drop in.
Top Tip 5: Beware of too many sentences that begin with “As”.
There’s nothing wrong with starting a sentence with “as.” I’ve done it in this post (see the last sentence). But “as” is a difficult little word. It has a lot of grammatical functions, which makes it slippery and hard to control. And when writers use it repeatedly to open sentences, it’s almost always a sign of defensiveness and anxiety.
Also, use it too often, and you’re more likely to trip over and suffer from a “dangling modifier”. Here’s an example of a sentence containing a dangling modifier that was launched by a reckless “as”:
As a supporter that receives our magazine, we hope that you enjoyed our article on the new wildlife centre.
The problem? “We” isn’t the same person as the “supporter”, but they’re sharing just one main verb: “hope”.
There is a verb in the modifying bit – “receives” – but it doesn’t have one of those stronger linking words like “when” or “because”. (And “that” should really be “who” – my guess is the writer was worried about the difference between “who” and “whom” so was avoiding the word altogether.)
How to fix this? You could write two complete sentences:
You will recently have received our magazine. We hope you enjoyed our article…
That’s OK, but you’re stating the obvious. They know they’ve recently received the magazine. So you might write:
As a supporter that receives our magazine, you will have enjoyed our article on the new wildlife centre.
Hmm. Now the subject “you” is the same as “the supporter”. But it sounds bossy, doesn’t it? Maybe they didn’t enjoy it. So then you might try:
As a supporter that receives our magazine, you may have noticed our article on the new wildlife centre…
And that sounds pompous.
When you can’t find a rewrite that works, I recommend going for the simplest solution of all. Cut everything you can. In this case, cut the opening and just write:
We do hope you enjoyed our article…
BONUS! Start sentences any way you want!
For some peculiar reason, school teachers told a generation of innocent children that there are certain sacred words with which you can never begin a sentence. That’s silly. It’s also wrong.
Some words, such as “as” and “this”, do tend to get writers into trouble, but there’s nothing wrong with using them at the beginning of a sentence if you know what you’re up to.
You can start your sentences with any word in the English language. Even “as”. Even “because”. Even “even” — just as you can write incomplete sentences, or use contractions like “it’s”. It’s your writing. Your teacher is long gone. As long as you’re clear, you’re fine.