If you want to be considered a professional writer, you need to avoid some common mistakes. To maximize your writing, you should consider some of the following language skills.
Use effective sentence length
Using a mix of long and short sentences will get and keep your readers’ attention. Very long sentences and paragraphs tend to lose a general audience. On the other hand, a continuous string of short sentences tends to sound like a machine-gun.
Make sure pronouns refer to the correct noun
Nothing is more frustrating to a reader than having to read a sentence several times in order to try to figure out what a pronoun is referring to. Here are a few examples:
The car went over the bridge just before it fell into the water. What fell into the water, the car or the bridge?
Jane told Susan she should be ready soon. Who should be ready soon, Jane or Susan?
Don’t be redundant
Unless there’s a specific reason for duplication, redundant words and/or phrases make sentences unnecessarily longer. Readers enjoy a tight concise text. Example: I never repeat myself, never. Instead of using 12 midnight, just use midnight. Likewise, instead of using 12 noon, just use noon. A favorite redundant phrase is end result. The word result means the outcome of some action—and end. So, change end result to just result.
Watch out for dangling modifiers
A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that doesn’t actually modify the word it’s intended to modify. Example (from Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5): Sleeping in my orchard, a serpent stung me. Who was sleeping in the orchard, the serpent or the person who was stung?
Don’t use too many parentheses
Parentheses are used to set off a word, phase, clause, or sentence inserted into a passage as an explanation, qualifier, or afterthought—the passage is otherwise complete without it. In writing, the insertion is usually noted with a pair of curved brackets or sometimes dashes. Example: Intelligence tests (e.g., the Stanford-Binet) are no longer widely used. If the parenthetical material is closely related to the main part of the sentence, it’s usually better to use commas. Note: Using too much parenthetical information disrupts the flow of the text and makes it sound bumpy.
Avoid using weak words
These are words and phrases that don’t add to the overall meaning of a text and, hence, end up being just so much clutter. Here are some examples:
stuff—Replace this weak word with a more descriptive noun (e.g., clothing, books and papers, etc.).
things—Replace this weak word with a more effective noun (e.g., reasons, elements, issues, etc.).
got—This weak word means “obtaining something”; it can also be used as a helping verb like have. Examples: Instead of I got up, you could use I woke up. Instead of I got a new shirt, you could use I bought/received a new shirt.
to be tenses (am/is/are/was/were)—Phrases or sentences using these words tend to be passive. It can often be more effective to replace these with action verbs. Examples: Instead of I was there, you could use I stood silently in the room. Instead of We were at the party, you could use My wife and I spoke with a number people at the party.
went—This word is similar to the “to be” words. There are any number of more effective word choices. Examples: Instead of I went to the store, you could use I walked to the store or I drove my car to the store to buy some much needed supplies.
To strengthen your writing, stop using weak words and phrases.
When you get past the usual grammar and punctuation issues, it’s time to pay attention to more advanced items such as those listed above. These suggestions will provide your writing with a greater impact than you’d achieve otherwise.
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