3 Simple Things Top-Notch Writers Do

What if I told you three simple things you can do to improve your writing technique, to bump it to the level professionals strive for—and hit—every day? Would you do them?

The best piece of advice I could ever give you as a writer is to learn to self-edit your work, and these three things are my top picks for how to do that. With a little practice, you can train your eye and your writing instincts to do these three things automatically. Before too long they’ll become second nature and you’ll wonder why you ever wrote any other way.

USE ACTIVE VOICE. You heard your English teacher say it all those years ago, and I’ll say it again now: Teach yourself to write in active voice rather than passive voice. Why? Because it makes the difference between strong writing and weak writing. The next time you pick up a good book or read an article in a leading magazine, stop and really LOOK at the way the sentences are constructed. Anybody can string words together, but learning to write in active voice is an acquired skill—you get good at it by doing it over and over again.

All right. Let’s get down to business. Below are three examples of the same information rendered two different ways—in passive voice and active voice. If left untrained, most people write passively, but watch what happens when we turn that weak, limping sentence around:

PASSIVE: Two young men were shot by police deputies on a routine warehouse search today. One was injured and the other was killed.

ACTIVE: Police deputies on a routine warehouse search shot two young men today, killing one and injuring the other.

In the first example, something was done to the boys; in the second, the police do something to the boys—shoot them. The same goes for the secondary sentence describing the result of those shootings.

PASSIVE: The reason she was late for work was a migraine headache that kept her up half the night, tossing and turning.

ACTIVE: A migraine headache that kept her up half the night tossing and turning made her late for work.

Again, look for a way to turn the action around so that one thing (in this case, a migraine headache) triggers something else (being late for work)—not the other way around.

PASSIVE: John and Penelope were handed an eviction notice by their landlord.

ACTIVE: The landlord handed John and Penelope an eviction notice.

Do you see the distinction? By simply turning the action around—and getting rid of weak words such as was—you create more muscular 

sentences. String a whole set of these “active voice” sentences together and you'll create strong prose. Believe me, before long you’ll start to think in active voice.

USE STRONG VERBS. Here’s another one Strunk & White (The Elements of Style) as well as your English teacher probably told you. Like the wisdom inherent in Mom’s advice to eat your veggies, this method for producing great copy is so grounded in real-world results it’s hard to deny.

Roy Peter Clark1, a senior scholar with the Poynter Institute (www.poynter.org), said it so well I won’t try to improve on his advice:

…Strong verbs create action, save words, and reveal the players.

President John F. Kennedy testified that his favorite book was From Russia With Love, the 1957 James Bond adventure by Ian Fleming. This choice revealed more about JFK than we knew at the time and created a cult of 007 that persists to this day.

The power in Fleming’s prose flows from the use of active verbs. In sentence after sentence, page after page, England’s favorite secret agent, or his beautiful companion, or his villainous adversary performs the action of the verb.

Bond climbed the few stairs and unlocked his door and locked and bolted it behind him. Moonlight filtered through the curtains. He walked across and turned on the pink-shaded lights on the dressing-table. He stripped off his clothes and went into the bathroom and stood for a few minutes under the shower. … He cleaned his teeth and gargled with a sharp mouthwash to get rid of the taste of the day and turned off the bathroom light and went back into the bedroom.

Bond drew aside one curtain and opened wide the tall windows and stood, holding the curtains open and looking out across the great boomerang curve of water under the riding moon. The night breeze felt wonderfully cool on his naked body. He looked at his watch. It said two o'clock.

Bond gave a shuddering yawn. He let the curtains drop back into place. He bent to switch off the lights on the dressing-table. Suddenly he stiffened and his heart missed a beat… 

GET RID of There Are/Is, -ing Constructions, and Extra Thats.

This is a personal pet peeve, but it holds true nonetheless. Ever wade through copy that reads like this?

There are approximately fifty dogs that are waiting to be adopted at the Safe Haven Canine Rescue Shelter. Debbie Smith, director of the shelter, said that there is no way all fifty dogs will be able to find a home before the euthanasia deadline unless the entire community gets involved.

This paragraph has a lot of bad stuff going on. Let’s see what happens when we turn the action around and, in so doing, get rid of “there are/is” constructions, the use of -ing, and the overuse of the word that.

Some fifty dogs await adoption at the Safe Haven Canine Rescue Shelter. Debbie Smith, director of the shelter, said that unless the entire community gets involved, all fifty dogs will not find homes before the euthanasia deadline.

Even though most of these examples depict journalistic writing, the same principles hold true for nonfiction and fiction prose, as illustrated by Ian Fleming’s famous text. Don’t be shy when it comes to improving your own copy. Learn to wield the editor’s “knife” yourself, and watch your words—your stories—grow more powerful in the process. 

—By Angie Kiesling

1. Excerpted from “Writing Tool #2: Use Strong Verbs,” The Poynter Institute (http://www.poynter.org/content/content_view.asp?id=62588)