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Live....and Let Live!
Improving the Basics
Use active instead of passive voice. One of the most common manifestations of bad writing is overuse of the passive voice. In English, the most basic sentence structure is S-V-O: Subject-Verb-Object. "The zombie bit the man" is an example of this sentence structure. The passive voice can cause confusion by putting the object first: "The man was bitten by the zombie." It usually requires more words and use of a "to be" verb form, which can suck the energy out of your writing. Learn to avoid these constructions as much as you can.
Using the passive voice isn't always bad. Sometimes there is no clear way to make a statement active, or sometimes you want the lighter touch a passive construction allows. But learn to follow this rule before you start making exceptions.
The main exception to this is science writing, which conventionally uses the passive voice to put the emphasis on the results, rather than the researchers (although this is changing, so check the guidelines before you write). For example, "puppies fed spicy dog food were found to have more upset stomachs" puts the emphasis on the finding rather than the person doing the finding.
Use strong words. Good writing, whether it's in a novel or a scholarly essay, is precise, evocative and spiced with the unexpected. Finding the right verb or adjective can turn an uninspired sentence into one people will remember and quote for years to come. Look for words that are as specific as possible. Try not to repeat the same word over and over unless you are trying to build a rhythm with it.
One exception to this is the words used to describe dialogue. Bad writing is filled with "he commented" and "she opined." A well-placed "sputtered" can work wonders, but most of the time a simple "said" will do. It may feel awkward to use the word "said" over and over, but changing it up unnecessarily makes it harder for your readers to get into the back-and-forth flow of the conversation. "He said/she said" becomes nearly invisible to your readers after a while, allowing them to stay focused on the characters' voices.
Strong doesn't mean obscure, or more complicated. Don't say "utilize" when you could say "use." "He sprinted" is not necessarily better than "he ran." If you have a really good opportunity to use "ameliorate," go for it—unless "ease" is just as good there.
Thesauruses can be handy, but use them with caution. Consider the predicament Joey from Friends gets into when he uses a thesaurus without also consulting a dictionary: "They're warm, nice people with big hearts" becomes "They're humid, prepossessing homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps." If you're going to use a thesaurus to spice up your vocabulary, look up your new words in the dictionary to determine their precise meaning.
Cut the chaff. Good writing is simple, clear and direct. You don't get points for saying in 50 words what could be said in 20, or for using multi-syllable words when a short one does just as well. Good writing is about using the right words, not filling up the page. It might feel good at first to pack a lot of ideas and details into a single sentence, but chances are that sentence is just going to be hard to read. If a phrase doesn't add anything valuable, just cut it.
Adverbs are the classic crutch of mediocre writing, and they often serve only to clutter up a sentence. A well-placed adverb can be delightful, but much of the time the adverbs we use are already implied by the verb or adjective—or would be if we had chosen a more evocative word. Don't write "screamed fearfully" -- "scream" already suggests fear. If you notice that your writing is filled with "-ly" words, it might be time to take a deep breath and give your writing more focus.
Sometimes cutting the chaff is best done at the editing stage. You don't have to obsess about finding the most concise way to phrase every sentence; get your ideas down on paper however you can and then go through to edit out unnecessary stuff.
Your writing doesn't just exist in a vacuum—it's experienced in conjunction with the reader's imagination. You don't need to describe every detail if a few good ones can spur the reader's mind to fill in the rest. Lay down well-placed dots and let the reader connect them.
Show, don't tell. Don't tell your readers anything that could be shown instead. Instead of just sitting your readers down for a long exposition explaining a character's background or a plot-point's significance, try to let the readers discover the same ideas through the words, feelings and actions of your characters. Especially in fiction, putting this classic piece of writing advice into practice is one of the most powerful lessons a writer can learn.
For example, "Sydney was angry after reading the letter" tells the reader that Sydney felt angry, but doesn't give us any way to see it for ourselves. It's lazy and unconvincing. "Sydney crumpled the letter and threw it into the fireplace before she stormed from the room" shows that Sydney was angry without having to say it outright. This is far more effective. Readers believe what we see, not what we're told.
Avoid clichés. Clichés are phrases, ideas or situations that have been used so often that they've lost any impact they once had. They're also usually too general to leave a lasting impression on your reader. Whether you're writing fiction or nonfiction, cutting clichés out of your work will make it better.
"It was a dark and stormy night" is a classic example of a clichéd phrase—even now a clichéd concept. Compare these similar weather-related opening lines:
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."—1984, by George Orwell. It's not dark, nor stormy, nor night. But you can tell right from the start something's not quite right in 1984.
"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."—Neuromancer, by William Gibson, in the same book that gave us the word "cyberspace." This not only gives you the weather report, it does so in such a way that you are immediately placed into his dystopian world.
""It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."—A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. Weather, emotion, damnation, and despair—Dickens covered it all with an opening line that leaves the reader ready for anything.
Clichés are also important to avoid when you're writing about yourself. Saying you're a "people person" says nothing definite about you. Saying you're able to communicate well with a variety of people because you grew up in a bilingual family and lived in six countries growing up lets your reader know you're a "people person" without you relying on lazy language.
Avoid generalizations. One of the hallmarks of sloppy writing is broad generalizations. For example, an academic essay might say something like "In modern times, we are more progressive than people a hundred years ago." This statement makes a host of unfounded assumptions and doesn't define important ideas like "progressive." Be precise and specific. Whether you're writing a short story or a scholarly essay, steering clear of generalizations and universal statements will improve your writing.
This applies to creative writing, too. Don't allow yourself to assume anything without examining it. For example, if you're writing a story about a female character, don't assume that she would automatically be more emotional than a man or more inclined to be gentle or kindly. This kind of non-examined thinking keeps you in a creative rut and prevents you from exploring the variety of possibilities that real life presents.
Back up what you say. Don't speculate without providing evidence for your assertions. In creative writing terms, this is similar to the "show, don't tell" principle. Don't just say that without a strong police force society as we know it would break down. Why is that true? What evidence do you have? Explaining the thinking behind your statements will allow readers to see that you know what you're talking about. It will also help them determine whether they agree with you.
Use metaphors and similes with caution. While a good metaphor or simile can give your writing punch and vigor, a bad one can make your writing as weak as a baby. (That, by the way, was a weak simile.) Overusing metaphors and similes can also suggest that you aren't confident with what you're saying and are relying on figures of speech to explain your ideas. They can also become clichéd really quickly.
A "mixed" metaphor mixes two metaphors so that they don't make sense. For example, "We'll burn that bridge when we come to it" mixes the common metaphor "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it" and "Don't burn bridges." If you're not sure how a metaphor goes, look it up -- or skip it altogether.
Break the rules. The best writers don't just follow the rules—they know when and how to break them. Everything from traditional grammar to the writing advice above is up for grabs if you know a transgression will improve your piece. The key is that you have to write well enough the rest of the time that it's clear you are breaking the rule knowingly and on purpose.
As with everything, moderation is key. Using one rhetorical question to create a punchy opening can be very effective. Using a string of six rhetorical questions would quickly diminish their effect. Be choosy about when and why you break the rules.
Edit, edit, edit. Editing is one of the most essential parts of writing. Once you finish a piece of writing, let it sit for a day and then read it over with fresh eyes, catching confusing bits or scrapping whole paragraphs—anything to make your piece better. Then when you are done, give it another read, and another.
Some people confuse "editing" with "proofreading." Both are important, but editing focuses on considering what your content is and how it works. Don't become so attached to your wording or a particular idea that you aren't willing to change it if you discover that your ideas would be more clear or effective presented in another way. Proofreading is more technical and catches errors of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and formatting.