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Sharpen your writing in 3 easy steps

Sharpen your writing in 3 easy steps

Limp prose is like weak wine: If it were stronger, we’d all be having a lot more fun. Whether you’re attracting new customers or reaching out to old ones, you are more likely to get a positive response with vigorous writing than with lazy verbs and the passive voice.

Though the following tips are for anyone interested in punching up their prose, they are specifically for those of you who claim you are not “writers,” that you have no skill with a quill, that you don’t think in ink. Yes, even you can reanimate your lifeless writing in just a few minutes by following these three easy steps. Tap into your hidden talent. Show the world what you can do.

And if you’re still not sure why this is worth your time, ask yourself: Would you return to a restaurant that served weak wine?


1. Start sentences with specific nouns and verbs

Readers want to know what you’re talking about. Tell them upfront.

BAD: It was a sunny day with clear skies in Munich.

                BETTER: The sun shone bright in the cloudless Munich sky.

BAD: We should place specific nouns and verbs at the start of a sentence.

                BETTER: Start sentences with specific nouns and verbs.

BAD: Over here is the water cooler, next to the kitchen.

                BETTER: The water cooler is over here, next to the kitchen.


2. Stay positive: Write “not” out of the sentence

Too much “not” adds up to one big nothing. Tell readers what is true, what we know, what something is, or what to do, and cut the negativity.

BAD: Don’t pay attention to the critics.

                BETTER: Ignore the critics.

BAD: This quarter was not as bad as last quarter.

                BETTER: This quarter was better than last quarter.

BAD: It hasn’t been a boring year.

                BETTER: It has been an exciting year.


3. Cut every word you can

Respect readers’ time and attention by trimming fat phrases down to lean bite-size bits. Such writing holds the reader breathless to the end, sets the heart racing, and energizes the mind. Here we go:

BAD: The trend toward e-commerce that we are currently experiencing (9 words)

                BETTER: The current trend toward e-commerce (5 words)

BAD: She presented herself with a simple goal that she would attempt to achieve within a 30-day period. (18 words)

                BETTER: She gave herself 30 days to achieve a simple goal. (10 words)

BAD: You must register in order to attend.

                BETTER: You must register to attend.

Note: You can almost always cut “in order to” down to “to” and preserve the meaning. Many writers cling to the phrase like it’s their favorite teddy bear, but trust me: You don’t need it, and you’ll seem more mature without it.


Of course, rules must be broken. I have likely broken a few in these lines. For all his dogma, even George Orwell’s sixth and final rule for writing encouraged breaking any of his rules when necessary to avoid saying anything “outright barbarous.”

But forget the exceptions for now. You need only know that you can write better today by applying these three suggestions. And when the work is hard, remember that it is also noble, and remember the words of Thomas Mann, the German author who said: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

A neater version would be, “…for whom writing is harder than it is for others,” but you get the point.

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