This tip ties in with tip #1: Be concise. It’s such an important tip that it’s worth elaborating on. Most of us use redundant words without noticing. As you revise your work, look at every word and ask yourself: is it necessary? Does it benefit the sentence?
Consider phrases like ‘for a long period of time’ and ‘at this point in time’. Rephrasing them as ‘for a long time’ and ‘now’ respectively will likely make your point more elegantly. And what about ‘reversed back’, ‘advance planning’ and ‘global pandemic’?
This brings me to the current fad of throwing ‘moving forward’ or ‘going forward’ into every second sentence. This is done more often in speaking than in writing, but it’s enough of a crime against language for me to feel it merits mentioning here. Unless you’re talking about literal movement – say, in a car, where the distinction between forwards and backwards is important – those phrases are almost always redundant. I’ve not yet found a sentence that benefitted from their inclusion.
I don’t mean all your sentences should be short; on the contrary, varying your sentence length will aid the rhythm and flow of your writing. What I mean is that it’s best not to cram unrelated ideas into one sentence and try to make them fit. This is a mistake I often see from inexperienced writers.
Consider this: Kathy was now thirteen and sang Robin a song as they both sat on the front steps of the house.
In this sentence, there are two completely unrelated ideas: Kathy’s age and the singing of the song. It’s clumsy.
Do readers need to know Kathy is thirteen? If not, delete it. Try this: ‘Kathy sang Robin a song as they both sat on the front steps of the house.’ (Or, better: ‘Kathy sang to Robin as they sat on the front steps.’)
If it is important for readers to know Kathy’s age right at this point, try rephrasing: ‘Thirteen-year-old Kathy sang to Robin as they sat on the front steps.’) Better still, if readers need to know Kathy is thirteen, find another place to tell them so – but not in this sentence.
Contrary to popular belief, disinterested does not mean bored or uninterested. It means impartial, or not having an interest – where the word ‘interest’ refers to a benefit or advantage. Think of ‘disinterested’ as not having a vested interest, or not having something to gain.
Here’s a thought that may help: You would expect a judge to be disinterested but not uninterested in your case.
But language evolves, you might protest – and yes; you’d be right. Pretty soon no one will remember that ‘disinterested’ once meant impartial. But now you know, and you can decide how you want to use it. I rather like the original meaning.
In English we don’t have a well-known dedicated non-gendered pronoun in the singular form. (Well, we do have ‘it’, but you can hardly use that when writing about humans.) Fortunately, however, we can use the word ‘they’ to fulfil this function.
In the past, the default was to use ‘he’ or ‘his’ when the gender of the noun was unknown or irrelevant. For instance: ‘The author relies upon his editor.’ Defaulting to the male pronoun, understandably, has become unacceptable. The alternative, which is still sometimes used, was to replace ‘he’ or ‘his’ with the unwieldy ‘his/her’ or ‘his or her’ or even ‘s/he’. For example: ‘The author relies upon his or her editor.’
This becomes tiresome if it appears often in a passage. It also fails to account for non-binary members of the community.
For these reasons, the plural pronoun, ‘they’ (or the possessive form, ‘their’), is perfectly acceptable: ‘The author relies upon their editor’.
Granted, for those of us who have grown up carefully ensuring that the pronoun matches its antecedent, the singular use of ‘they’ can be jarring. But we’ll just have to get used to it. In fact, using ‘they’ in this way is not a new thing; it’s been happening for hundreds of years. What’s new is the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun for a person with non-binary gender. For example: ‘Sandy relies upon their editor’.
There is often a better alternative, and that is to recast the sentence so as to avoid this mismatch. In the example I’ve given, ‘Authors rely upon their editors’ solves the problem nicely. But sometimes this isn’t possible – and in those cases, using the singular pronoun ‘they’ is perfectly appropriate.
Read more about it here: https://www.academicwritingsuccess.com/the-astonishing-history-of-singular-they/ to edit.
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.