Or, to give it a more positive slant: make every word a strong one.
Some words need to be approached with caution! My least favourite word is ‘several’.
Honestly, if someone tells you there are several people in the room, can you picture the scene exactly? Are there four people or twenty? Or what about this one: ‘Several moments passed before she spoke’. OK, so how long is a moment? Multiply that undefined moment by the ambiguous number ‘several’ and you’ve got … how long? Be specific and be firm.
An alternative title for this tip is ‘Use passive voice judiciously’.
In active voice, the subject of the sentence is performing the action. For example, ‘The mouse ate the cheese’. In this sentence, the mouse (the subject) is doing the action (eating). In passive voice, the subject has the action performed upon it. If you were to rewrite the previous sentence in passive voice – ‘The cheese was eaten by the mouse’ – the subject is now the cheese, and the action is being performed on it (being eaten).
Sometimes passive voice is fine. Sometimes it’s necessary – for instance, when you don’t know who or what performed the action (‘The cheese was eaten’). It’s also useful when the entity performing the action is irrelevant. For instance: ‘You are not allowed to eat in the library’. Who is not allowing you to eat in the library? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you (subject) have to put your sandwiches away.
As with any sentence construction, it’s best not to overdo the passive voice. Variety is important, but active voice is often clearer, stronger and more concise.
This is a VERY common error.
‘Walking down the street, a car cut across Betsy’s path.’
Can you see what’s wrong with this sentence? In the first phrase, ‘walking down the street’, the (implied) subject is Betsy. In the second phrase, however, we find that the car is the subject. What the author intends to say is that Betsy is walking and the car is cutting across her path – but what they’re actually saying is that the car is walking down the street and cutting across Betsy’s path. Rephrased: ‘As Betsy walked down the street, a car cut across her path.’
Obviously, in this instance we know what the author means to say, and many readers would skim it without noticing the grammatical blunder. But sometimes sentence constructions like this cause confusion, and sometimes they even make for ridiculous reading. Here’s one I came across recently: ‘Sweeping across the paddock, Fran's eyebrows rose as she saw him approach’. Unless I’m mistaken, the author is not trying to tell us that Fran's eyebrows were sweeping across the paddock; I'm pretty sure Fran's eyes were sweeping and her eyebrows were rising. But that’s not how it’s written.
A ‘modifier’ is a word or phrase that adds a description (‘Walking down the street’ in my first example). This grammatical fault is called a ‘dangling modifier’ because the subject of the modifying phrase is missing, leaving the modifier dangling. You might also see it called a ‘dangling participle’.
Ouch! This is something I’m tempted to do all the time.
You may be sorely and dangerously tempted to use flowery, long-winded, extravagant sentences full of beautifully expressive and clever words to get your profound meaning across vividly, but please vigorously resist this unhelpful, often counter-productive and somewhat irritating urge.
Or, to put it another way: there’s nothing wrong with adjectives or adverbs, just as there’s nothing wrong with small children. You just don’t want seventeen of them in your house at once.
I’m getting better at this, and you can too. It’s all in the editing! Trim back, and trim back again.
About this blog
Through my experience as an editor, a reader and a book reviewer, I’ve noticed that some writing faults keep just popping up again and again. As an author, I’m especially aware of those writing crimes that I’m frequently tempted to commit myself. This series of brief tips addresses the common writing problems that I’ve encountered. Following them will help make your writing clear, accurate and stylish.