You tend to use less explicit descriptions (such as clichés, qualifiers, wordy constructions, overuse of prepositional phrases, vague constructions). How might your discussion be more precise and engaging? How might your revise this sentence to make it clearer, more active, more convincing, and more connected to other sentences or ideas?

These questions touch on one of the foundations of effective writing—clarity. Excessive wordiness (often caused by passive constructions) can confuse readers and require them to spend more time trying to understand your sentences rather than your ideas.  Writing clearly and concisely entails frequent revision, but there are some guiding principles to help refine your writing:

  • Be specific.

When we speak, we use voice inflection and hand gestures to convey our points, but we don’t have this luxury when we write. We have words, but words alone require more effort. Consider the word "dog." For some, this word evokes, or calls to mind, your four-legged best friend; for others, the word may conjure images of that guy who never called.  If the word dog makes up part of a sentence, we may be able to tell that the writer refers to an animal that barks—but there are still 5,000 different kinds of dogs, so which type of dog is it? After all, there is a big difference between a Chihuahua and a Pit Bull. Getting specific ensures that your reader understands the message you're trying to convey.

  • Be active.

“Active voice” refers to the relationship between the subject and the verb of a sentence.  In an active sentence, the subject carries out the action of the verb, i.e., “Joseph (subject) ate (verb) the burrito.” In passive sentences, however, the subject no longer acts but is acted upon by the verb: "The burrito was eaten (verb) by Joseph (subject)" or "The burrito was eaten" (if the subject is unknown).  Below are some more examples. Note that in these examples, the sentences become shorter and more specific because active writing forces the writer to be clearer and more assertive.

Passive Active

The reason he left his job at the bank was because his health began to fail.

He left his job at the bank because his health began to fail.
The balloon was blown up by me. I blew up the balloon.
The boat has been destroyed by a hurricane. A hurricane destroyed the boat.
The dragon has been killed by the heroine. The heroine killed the dragon.

 

  • Don’t just be. Do!

The overuse of “to be” verbs can weaken the effect of your writing. Remember that because verbs indicate the action and energy of your sentences, they are very important.  Active verbs add flavor to our sentences. When we rely too much on “to be” verbs, our writing becomes wordy and boring.  Including active verbs shortens the sentences and makes them easier to understand.

 

Overuse of "To Be" Active Verbs

One difference between watching television and reading is that reading is an activity
that is dependent upon more participation while watching television is a more passive
activity.

Reading differs from watching television because reading requires active
participation while watching television allows the viewer to sit back and relax.
I am about to be fired. My boss will soon fire me.
If you are okay with this proposition, let me know. If you accept this proposition, let me know.
People are always saying that I am an intellectually gifted person. People often praise me for my intellectual giftedness.

 

  • Be positive.

Readers enjoy reading what is rather that what is not. When you compose a piece of writing, be sure to make assertions by avoiding bland or hesitant language. Consider the following sentence: “She did not think that studying algebra was a valuable way to spend the morning.” Now here’s a revision in the positive: “She thought studying algebra was a waste of the morning.”  In the revised version, it is clear what she thinks about studying: it wasted the morning.  In general, avoid using the word not when another word can replace it.

Negative Form Positive Form
Not interesting Boring
Not honest Dishonest
Not important Trifling
Not paying attention Ignoring
Not big Small
Not known Unknown
  • Avoid Repetition.

Sometimes writers strive for word counts rather than precision. Unfortunately, this rarely fools the reader.  While the impulse to write more seems reasonable, it often leads to repetitive, bland paragraphs. As you revise, look for words that restate sentiments. Here are some examples:

Repetitive Explanation
Terrible tragedy Tragedy implies terrible.
Large in size Large indicates a size.
Actual facts Actuality requires factuality.
Pink in color Pink is a color.
Completely whole           Being whole entails completion.