Three Suggestions for Improving Your Writing Style

By Lydia Fash

1. Combine Short Sentences

Combine short choppy sentences to create smoother prose. Short sentences are effective when used rarely; continually using short sentences creates stilted, awkward prose. I am not advocating paragraph-long sentences. Rather, you should tend towards sentences of a reasonable length and use very short and very long sentences rarely and for emphasis.

Example of a string of awkwardly short sentences: The dog wanted a bone as usual. The girl gave the dog a bone. The dog was in the dog house.

Improved: Since, as usual, the dog in his house wanted a bone, the girl gave him one.

2. Employ Sentence Variation

Use phrases and clauses to avoid structuring each sentence in the same way. If you continually use the same rhythm, you will not interest your reader. In fact, your prose can be like that relentless dripping faucet: monotonous and painful.

Example 1

The dog wanted a bone as usual. The girl gave the dog a bone. The dog was in the dog-house.

Each subject is in bold face; each predicate is in italic.

Do you see how all the sentences have the same pattern? The effect is telegraphic: the prose sounds as if it were sent via Morse code on a telegraph. Start the sentence with phrases or clauses to add variation.

Do not always start with the subject of the main clause. An improved version of the sentence ("Since, as usual, the dog in his house wanted a bone, the girl gave him one.") starts with a subordinate clause, a clause that cannot stand on its own as a sentence. By combining the three shorter sentences, I put emphasis on the action in the independent clause, a clause that can stand on its own as a sentence: "the girl gave him one" is the most important idea in the sentence.

Example 2

The prime minister liked the policy, and the prime minister signed the bill. The policy was to give more money to schools. The schools had been underfunded for years.

Again, each subject is in bold face; each predicate is in italic. Again, the rhythm is monotonous.

A way of improving the sentence follows: Liking the policy which was to give more money to the schools which had been underfunded for years, the prime minister signed the bill.

3. Use Transitions

Transition words, when wisely used, can give fluidity to your prose; they also make connections between your thoughts clear by indicating comparison, contrast, addition, temporality, and the like. Remember that the most effective transitions are often made within the grammar and meaning of a sentence.

Whenever possible, avoid passive voice. Passive voice has less action and less immediacy; it makes prose feel officious and weak. The opposite of passive voice is active voice, the voice which you should use whenever possible.

Passive voice is a verbal construction in which what should be the subject is deferred or absent and what would normally be the direct object stands in as the subject. If what should be the subject is included at all, it is found in a prepositional phrase (usually a by prepositional phrase). A passive verb usually has two parts (sometimes it has more): a version of the verb "to be" and a past participle. To activate a sentence with passive voice, ask yourself: "Who is the subject? Who is doing the action?" Then rearrange the sentence accordingly.

Example 1

The ball was thrown by the boy.

The phrase "was thrown" is the two-part passive verb. Who did the action? Can a ball throw itself? No. The boy throws the ball. (See that the subject, "the boy," is found after "by.")

So, the active version of this sentence is: The boy throws the ball. This active sentence has fewer words and more action.

Example 2

The book was written by the author.

A book can't write itself! So, the real doer of the action is in the by clause: the author.

The active version of this sentence reads: The author wrote the book. Again, this new sentence has fewer words and more action.

Example 3

Mistakes were made.

Government officials like to use this line when pretending to accept culpability for a situation. See how no one is doing the action?! We do not know who made the mistakes!

Better would be: The politician made mistakes.

Note: Infrequent and mindful use of the passive voice can be rhetorically effective or disciplinarily appropriate; however, in most writing, you should use the active voice much more frequently.

Exercise

Change the following sentences from passive voice to active voice. If the passive construction has no noun which can be the subject, invent a subject for the active construction.

  1. The kitchen should have been cleaned.
  2. The hurricane relief efforts were poorly coordinated by FEMA.
  3. Le Corbusier, the famous modernist architect, is still praised by critics.
  4. My head was filled from all the information in class.
Answers
  1. The cook (or some other noun) should have cleaned the kitchen.
  2. FEMA poorly coordinated Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
  3. Critics still praise Le Corbusier, the famous modernist architect.
  4. All the information in class filled my head. (Though the preposition "from" replaces the proposition "by" here, "the information in class" can still easily function as the subject.)