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Writing more effectively | Jane’s grammar nugget

by | May 14, 2008 | Grammar & Spelling

Jane Straus, late author of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, offered practical writing tips in addition to grammar help. Let’s see if her wisdom can help you become a more effective writer by learning some tricks of the trade. These are stylistic ideas that can turn a dull letter or report into an intriguing one.

Use Concrete Rather Than Vague Language

For example, if we say, “The weather was of an extreme nature in the Gulf Coast region,” we are vague and boring. Compare this sentence to “Hurricanes and storms raged like never before in Louisiana, Mississippi, and parts of Texas.” Which sentence would make you want to continue reading?

We often learn that the first sentence of a paragraph should be general. This is a myth. The first sentence should tell the reader what the rest of the paragraph will cover AND be inviting. Good topic sentences lure the reader. Ask yourself which of the above topic sentences you would rather dive into, and it’s obvious that concrete language has the power.

Use Active Voice Instead of Passive

Example of Active Voice: Barry hit the ball.
Example of Passive Voice: The ball was hit by Barry.

Why is active voice better? Because we know who did what, which is always more interesting for our audience.

A Phrase to Avoid

Here’s our third trick of the trade: Avoid overusing there is, there are, it is, it was, and that was to start your sentences. For example, “There is a case of meningitis that was reported in the newspaper.” If we get rid of there is, look at what happens. “A case of meningitis was reported in the newspaper.” We were also able to get rid of that was. Now, this is still passive voice, so let’s make it active: “The newspaper reported a case of meningitis.” You can see that the sentence is less cumbersome and more direct by

  • Applying the techniques of getting rid of there is at the beginning, and
  • Using active voice.

Once again, we hook our readers with just a few tricks.

One Positive Beats Two Negatives

The fourth technique is to use a positive instead of two negatives to convey an idea. For example, we could say, “Sam is not unwilling to do the report.” Unless we want to convey hesitation on the part of Sam, it’s better to say, “Sam is willing to do the report.” Even if we want to convey hesitation, we could say, “Sam is willing to do the report after having coffee.” By stating the positive, we give the reader more useful information.

Use Parallelism

Finally, a great editors’ trick is to use parallel construction. Sounds like a fancy term but it’s easy to spot the problem once you have a little practice.

If we say, “You should check your spelling, grammar, and punctuating,” we sense an awkwardness. Somehow the sentence is unbalanced. This is because the nouns are not all constructed similarly or in parallel fashion. It is better to say, “You should check your spelling, grammar, and punctuation.”

If we say, “To win is the obvious goal, but playing fair is important too,” it might sound okay. But listen to the sentence reworded with parallel construction: “Winning is the obvious goal, but playing fair is important too.” We have replaced “to win” with “winning” so that it is parallel with “playing.” Doesn’t that add a nice sense of balance?

Effective writing techniques are not so mysterious after all. Use them, and your writing will sparkle.

Reprinted by permission of the late Jane Straus, author of the bestselling The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, from her free Grammarbook.com e-newsletters and blogs.

Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, 11th editionWe love The Blue Book so much that we’ve been carrying it for years in the WriteShop store. We also include it in the WriteShop Starter Bundle. It’s a combination reference book and workbook, oh so easy to use, and handy for home or office. Jane’s examples are short, simple, and practical. We know you’ll love it too! And to read more of Jane’s Grammar Nuggets, type “Jane” in the search box.