Write with Style

Scholar Helen Sword studied as many writing guides as she could lay her eyes on. She saw six points of unanimous advice:

1. Clarity, Coherence, Concision: write sentences that are clear, coherent, and concise.

2. Short or Mixed-Length Sentences: write short sentences or vary sentence rhythm with alternating short and long sentences.

3. Plain English: avoid ornate, pompous, Latinate, and waffly prose.

4. Precision: avoid vagueness and imprecision.

5. Active verbs: active verbs should dominate your writing; use passive verb constructions sparingly.

6. Tell a story: create a compelling narrative.

On drafting sentences, in particular, she offers three guiding principles:

1. Employ plenty of concrete nouns and active verbs, especially when writing about abstract concepts.

2. Keep the nouns and verbs close together in your sentences, so that readers know “who’s kicking whom.” In other words, keep the actor and the action close together; express the crucial actions in verbs and the central characters (real or abstract) in subjects.

3. Avoid clutter: keep your sentences free from extraneous words and phrases.

How to put these principles regularly in play? Sword offers help here too.

1. Check the health of your sentences by pasting them to http://www.writersdiet.com. The “WritersDiet” test will categorize your sentences as “flabby” or “fit.”

2. Replace at least a few “be” verbs (be, been, is, are) with active verbs.

3. Identify your passive constructions and decide whether they add syntactical variety or offer other justification for inclusion. Too many passive phrases wilt the sentence.

4. Make sure at least one sentence per paragraph contains a concrete noun or human entity as its subject, immediately followed by an active verb.

5. A noun and its accompanying verb should pack a quick, one-two punch. Readers lose interest when more than a dozen or so words separate the actor (subject or noun) from the action (verb).

6. When writing about inanimate abstractions, still use active verbs to “animate” them.

7. Cut down on prepositional phrases, especially when they string together long sentence with abstract nouns.

8. When possible, explain abstract concepts using concrete examples (which, for brevity’s sake, I’ve violated in this very blog post!)

As many writers before Ms. Sword have pointed out: there is no writing, there is only re-writing. And, I would add, reading about re-writing. On that score, we should all read (and re-read) Ms. Sword’s engaging practical guide, “Stylish Academic Writing.”