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Chapter 8: Style

Choosing Hard-Working Words

Make sure every word you write serves a purpose, working to heighten the impact of the piece. Remember one simple rule when choosing words: Do not settle for less than the best.

Be skeptical about adjectives and adverbs—always look for one that is more specific and try eliminating some of them altogether. In particular, try not to use “very.”

Avoid using clichés or overly casual or colloquial language, except when writing dialogue or when there is no other way to convey a meaning.

Resist the temptation to use long, complicated words and phrases when shorter, clearer ones will do.

Avoid being overly descriptive—many modifiers are redundant. One powerful word is better than three lazy words.

Weak: She ran quickly down the stairs. (To run is to move quickly.)
Stronger: She ran down the stairs. (more energetic)
Stronger still: She bounded down the stairs. (Learn to love your thesaurus!)

By practicing the principles of good writing, you can easily compensate for the additional length caused by eliminating the old “shorthand” for describing people (for example, using people with disabilities instead of the disabled). Use strong, active verbs and eliminate all convoluted passive constructions.

Strike out qualifiers and other redundancies.

has been engaged in a study of
successfully avoided
has the capability of
particularly unique
most often is the case that
often is

Lazy Words and Clutter: Terms to Avoid

The following words and phrases clutter sentences and make your writing less powerful and specific:

a bit
a little
sort of
kind of
pretty much
in a sense

Avoid using these equivocating words, as they whittle away at your credibility, making readers wonder whether you “are” or “are not.”

Original: I am rather excited.
Better: I am excited.

Original: I am sort of tired.
Better: I am tired.

Original: The study was pretty much wrapped up.
Better: The study was wrapped up, except for a few small details.

Avoid redundant or contrasting adjectives and adverbs that confuse or tire the reader:

The true effects of the study. (There are no untrue effects.)
Slightly Spartan (This is not possible.)
Totally flabbergasted (You either are or are not flabbergasted.)
Rough sandpaper
A little bit (By nature, a bit is little: Use either “a little” or “a bit.”)

Do not make verbs out of other words:

I tasked her that report.
I instant messaged [or IM-ed] my friend about that.
The cut in funding impacted the level of services provided.

Passive and Active Voice

The active voice usually makes for livelier and more vigorous writing (for an excellent, influential discussion of passive versus active construction, see The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White). Although there are rare occasions when the passive voice is preferable to the active, writing that relies on passively worded sentences lacks force, is less concise, and is less attractive to readers.

Try to avoid using a passive verb unless there is absolutely no way to get around it, or you need to use it to emphasize a particular subject:

Active: The kitten jumped on the catnip mouse.
Passive: The catnip mouse was jumped on by the kitten.

Active: She patted the dog.
Passive: The dog was patted by her.

Using the passive voice changes the emphasis in a sentence. There are times when this is desirable (not often); it is a useful tool to master and can help you highlight a specific point or subject.

Active: The parents loved the child. (emphasizes the parents)
Passive: The child was loved by its parents. (emphasizes the child)

Active: A three-alarm fire blazed through an apartment building on King Street last night, leaving several residents homeless. (emphasizes the fire)
Passive: Several residents of an apartment building on King Street were left homeless when a fire blazed through their building last night. (emphasizes the people)

The passive voice usually results in long sentences, which can sap your writing’s energy, as well as your readers’ enthusiasm. Often, readers end up feeling unsure about who has done what to whom.

Use precise verbs rather than those attached or dependent on prepositions:

Not precise: He stepped down.
Precise: He retired.
Precise: He was fired. (This is a somewhat passive voice, but is better than “stepped down.” It is an example of using the passive voice to highlight the subject of a sentence: “He was fired” is much different in meaning than “The company fired him.” Note where the emphasis is in each sentence: the first emphasized “him,” whereas the second emphasized “the company.”)
Precise: He resigned.

Choose verbs that stand on their own and say exactly what you want them to say:

Not precise: I set up my business.
Precise: I launched my business.
Precise: I opened my business.

Use “there is” and “there are” at the beginning of a sentence sparingly: The verb “to be” offers little chance of action (a state of being is, in itself, a passive concept). It often leads into a bland, unenergetic, passive-voice sentence. However, use the phrase when no action could be implied

Original: There was no one to help him move the desk.
Better: No one helped him move the desk.

Original: No evidence exists that elderly people do not benefit from exercise.
Better: There is no evidence that elderly people do not benefit from exercise.

Always express negatives using a positive form. This takes a little more effort but results in well-written and active sentences.

Negative: The Legislature did not consider the Governor’s proposal.
Positive: The Legislature refused to consider the Governor’s proposal.
Positive: The Legislature failed to consider the Governor’s proposal.

Negative: Human resources reported that not all employees used up their vacation days.
Positive: Human resources reported that some employees had vacation days remaining.

The following quotation, from the Associated Press Guide to News Writing, is a good illustration of the power of the active voice:

Some years ago, a specialist in the analysis of extortion notes and terrorist threats told an interviewer that a note that reads “I will kill you” suggests the writer means business. “You will be killed,” on the other hand, suggests that the writer may waver, lacking “sufficient commitment to identify himself as the agency of the threat.”

Style Suggestions

Mixing up the length of sentences and paragraphs will make any writing more exciting and accessible. An entire paragraph of similar-length sentences is choppy and can sound repetitive. Also, vary the length of words in sentences to avoid ending up with a chain of monosyllabic words.

Be careful about run-on sentences. If a sentence is more than 25 words long, give or take a few words, consider breaking it up into two sentences or using a semicolon.

Avoid beginning every sentence or paragraph with the same word. This may not be noticeable when you are writing a piece, but it will stand out to the reader. When revising, keep an eye out for redundancy.

Sentences usually should not begin with “But” or “And” (except, sometimes, in informal writing, when “And” at the beginning of a sentence can add emphasis).

Whenever possible, sentences should not end with prepositions.

Incorrect: Joe was not sure who to deliver the letter to.
Correct: Joe was not sure to whom he should deliver the letter.

If following the preposition rule makes a sentence too awkward or stiff, disregard it and write naturally.

Learn how to choose the proper case of pronoun (he, she, him, her) and make sure your pronouns, subjects, and verbs agree in number.

Incorrect: Everyone thinks they have a good sense of humor.
Correct: Everyone thinks she has a good sense of humor.

Note: For more information, see the “Pronouns” section.

Learn the difference between passive and active verbs and strive to eliminate the passive tense as often as possible.

Passive: The evening news had been delivered by the same anchor for five years.
(“Had been delivered” is an example of passive tense. Although it is not incorrect, the sentence has more impact if the verb is active.)
Active: The same anchor delivered the evening news for five years.

Remember that “data” is always plural and requires a plural verb form. “Datum” is the singular form of the word and requires a singular verb.

Avoid using the verb “to share,” unless you are talking about splitting something, like a dessert. It should never be used to denote the conveying of information.

Incorrect: I would like to share my feelings on the topic before we go on with the meeting.
Correct: I would like to let you know how I feel about this topic before we go on with the meeting.

Never use Dr. and PhD at the same time. Always identify a person for the first time using her or his academic credentials (MD, PhD). Once you have identified a person, you may then use the title “Dr.”

Incorrect: Dr. Jane Brown, PhD
Correct: Jane Brown, PhD (Later in the same document, “Dr. Brown” is the preferred form.)
Correct: Jane Brown, MD (Later in the same document, “Dr. Brown” is the preferred form.)

For more information on writing with clarity and style, refer to the following sources:

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr., and E. B. White
On Writing Well, by William K. Zinsser

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