How to identify weaknesses in your writing

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I spoke with a coaching client last week about bad writing.

Here’s what we decided:

  • Most writing is neither bad nor good. The majority lies somewhere in the middle. Whether you, the reader, like it, boils down to taste. In matters of taste, we’re all experts.
  • Still, in that vast middle area, there are likely some bad sentences. The skilled self-editor has a vocabulary for describing them.

Here’s how you can identify bad writing:

1. Are your sentences too long?

People often freak out when I ask this question, but isn’t it harder to read a long sentence than a short one? (Raise your hand if you survived the 958-word first sentence of “Remembrance of Things Past.” I didn’t.)

Sentence length is often a placeholder for other problems:

  • Are you unduly wordy?
  • Do you have any misplaced modifiers?
  • Are you sure your “sentence” has a subject and predicate?

It’s easier to miss these issues in long sentences. In short ones, they stand out like shorts at a funeral.

In our TV- and Internet-modulated society, readers respond best to sentences that are, on average, 14 to 18 words. Note I said average; don’t make all your sentences the same length.

2. Are your sentences are too similar ?

Most schools don’t teach grammar these days, so I’ll keep this basic. Consider this sentence:

Madison went to the store.

It begins with a subject (Madison) and includes a predicate—a.k.a. a verb—(went) modified by an adverbial phrase (to the store).

If all of your sentences are this simple, you’ll bore your readers. Use variety. Perhaps begin with a dependent clause (Although she was very tired, Madison went to the store), an infinitive phrase (To please her mother, Madison went to the store), an adverb (Quickly, Madison went to the store) or a participial phrase (Hoping to find some ice cream, Madison went to the store). Don’t bore your readers, or yourself, by always saying things the same way.

3. Are you too abstract?

Readers like writing that engages the mind’s eye. If I write the word “dog,” you will immediately picture an image—perhaps of your own dog or a friend’s. But if I write the word “existence,” what do you picture? If I push myself, I see a globe (I’m not sure why), but that takes real effort. The word doesn’t lend itself to images, which makes readers weary.

Instead of writing about abstractions, include more stories, anecdotes and examples. This will excite your readers and make them more enthusiastic about your writing.

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4. Do you use too many unclear antecedents?

I know, “antecedent” is a scary grammar word.

An antecedent is a word that gives meaning to another word. Consider these two sentences: Daphne wrote this column. She wanted to remove the fear of antecedents.

“She” is a pronoun. “Daphne” is the antecedent.

When I read stories, I notice writers place pronouns like “it” or noun markers like “this,” “that” and “these” too far from their antecedents. It’s OK to use pronouns, of course, but be clear about the antecedents they refer to.

If you tend to be vague with your antecedents, develop the habit of doing a search (command + F) for “it,” “this,” “that” and “these,” and double-check to ensure they’re clear.

5. Do you use too many clichés?

I read a New York Times obituary on newspaperman Ben Bradlee last week. Imagine my chagrin when I encountered the following sentence about Bradlee protégées Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein: Soon they were working the phones, wearing out shoe leather and putting two and two together.

These aren’t horrible clichés (like “the nick of time”), but they’re worse than I expect from the Times. When you self-edit, spend at least part of your time extinguishing clichés. If you have trouble finding them, use the Cliche Finder, an imperfect but useful tool.

6. Do you fail to use connectors or transitions?

I know I’m in the hands of a sophisticated writer when I see words or phrases like “on the other hand,” “or here for example” or “similarly.” These transitional words ease readers’ way, letting them know what to expect in the next sentence.

Beginning writers almost universally fail to use enough connectors or transitions.

7. Do you use passive voice?

Passive sentences hide the leading actor. If that doesn’t make sense to you, this sentence is a classic example: Mistakes were made.

Who made those mistakes? We don’t know. That’s why the sentence is passive. Identify the actor, and you have an active sentence that’s easier for the reader to visualize. For example: The Canadian government made mistakes.

Not all passive voice is simple to identify, however. That’s why I suggest using the Hemingway app. This fantastic tool is the best non-human editor I’ve ever met, and it will highlight your passivity in bright green.

(Note: Passive voice isn’t uniformly bad, but if you can’t recognize it, you shouldn’t be allowed to use it.)

8. Do you have too little to say?

This is the most serious problem of all, and one I see frequently in blogs. The writer doesn’t have enough interesting, new or useful material. Don’t waste your readers’ time. Know your point or angle, and give it succinctly.

Your writing may be in the middle, but aim for excellence. Excellence is not an accident. You achieve it through habit.

What kind of bad writing do you watch for?

A version of this article originally appeared on Publication Coach.  

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