How to write better English: a quick style guide
Improving Your Writing Style
What do we mean by style?
Have you ever wondered what your instructors mean when they write “wordy” or “passive
voice” or “awk” in the margins of your paper? Do you sometimes
sense that your sentences could be stronger, clearer, shorter, more effective?
Do you often feel that you know what you mean but do not know how to say it?
If you often get feedback from your instructors that you need to “tighten
your prose” or “look at your word choice,” you may need to
work on your writing style. When you read your writing it may seem perfectly
clear, but other people may not be getting your point. If you have checked
your grammar, punctuation, and even that handy thesaurus on your word processor
and still find a ton of circled words and question marks on your graded paper,
you may need to work on your writing style–the way you put together a sentence
or group of sentences.
Part of the problem with style is that it’s subjective. Different
readers have different ideas about what constitutes good writing style—so
do different instructors and different academic departments. For example,
passive voice is generally more acceptable in science fields than in the
humanities. You may have an instructor who keeps circling items in your
paper and noting “word choice” or “awkward” and another
who only comments on content. Worse yet, some of what readers identify as
writing problems are not technically grammatically incorrect. A sentence
can be wordy and still pass all the rules in the grammar handbooks. This
fact may make it harder for you to see what’s wrong, and it may make
you more likely to think that the instructor is picky or out to get you
when you read her comments. In fact, the instructor probably just cares
about your development as a writer. She wants you to see what she thinks
interferes with your argument and learn to express your ideas more directly,
elegantly, and persuasively.
Say What You Mean
First, remember that your goal in academic writing is not to sound intelligent, but to get your intelligent point across. You may be reading complicated textbooks and articles, and even when they don’t make sense to you, they
all sound smart. So when you have to write a paper, you may try to imitate
this type of writing. But sometimes when you imitate the style, you miss
the most important goal–communicating and being understood. Your instructor
isn’t psychic, and if she can’t understand what you are saying,
she’s going to have trouble giving you credit for it. Remember that
the most important goal in every paper is to get your point across as straightforwardly
Say It in the Appropriate Tone
Beware of the opposite problem: writing exactly like you speak to your
friends over lunch at Lenoir. We’ve written this pamphlet in a chatty,
friendly style, so that you’ll read it and think “this isn’t
such a painful way to learn about style.” Ours may not be the appropriate
style for an academic paper. Some instructors may think it’s okay
to say “the Renaissance was a drag” or “the cool thing about
the Balkans is…” but most won’t. When in doubt, be conservative—and
don’t think that because a discipline is “arty” or “out
there” that they want you to write like that.
This caution doesn’t mean you should write all your sentences in
a choppy, obvious, “see Jane run” style. It just means that you
should make sure that your instructor isn’t distracted from what you
are trying to say by how you are saying it.
How to Improve
If you learn how to recognize matters of style in your writing, you will
have more control over your writing—the way someone reads your paper
will be a result of choices you have made. If those choices are deliberate,
you’ll have more control over how the reader reacts to your argument.
So let’s look at the what instructors often perceive as the biggest
style “crimes.” You probably don’t have trouble with all
of these, so focus your attention on those issues most relevant to your
own writing. First we’ll explain some common, style-related writing
problems., then we’ll show you some handy tips for finding them, and
finally we’ll work on correcting them in your revision process. (That’s
right: at first you may have to include a revision devoted entirely to style
in your writing process, at least until you get used to recognizing and
correcting these issues as you write.)
This term is used to cover a couple of style problems that involve
using more words than you absolutely need to say something. Especially
when we talk, we use a lot of little filler words that don’t
actually have anything to add to the meaning of our sentences (this
sentence has several examples–can you find them? Try to take out five
words in the previous sentence.). In writing, these filler words and
phrases become more obvious and act as delays in getting the reader
to the point of your idea. If you have enough delays in your sentence,
your readers might get frustrated. They might even start skimming your
paper, which seems a shame after all of your efforts to communicate
Your wordiness may derive from a potential problem unrelated to your writing
style: uncertainty about your topic, lack of a developed argument, or lack
of evidence. If you’re not sure what you want or have to say, you may have
trouble saying it. As you struggle to find what you mean or play with a
vague idea or concept, you may write garbled or rambling sentences. If this
happens to you, it doesn’t mean that you are a “bad” writer or
that you have a “bad” writing style or “bad” ideas.
It simply indicates that you are using writing as a way to think–to discover
your point. It’s okay to let yourself think on the page and write to discover
precisely what you mean. Taking thirty minutes (or more) to let yourself
write and clarify your point for yourself may save you lots of time later.
Write to yourself until you can quickly explain to a friend what you are
writing about, why you believe it, and what evidence supports your position.
Then, sit down to write your paper with your reader in mind. Note: Some
writers, in an effort to make a page limit, will be wordy on purpose—this
tactic will be obvious to the reader, and most instructors will be less
Wordy constructions such as cliches, qualifiers, and redundant pairs are
easy to fix, once you recognize your tendency to use them. Read several
of your old papers and see if you can locate any of these tendencies or
consider whether they have become a habit for you in your writing:
Although France bit off more than they could chew in Vietnam, America’s
intervention was too little, too late.
Correct: Cliches stand in for more precise descriptions of something. Slow
down and write exactly, precisely what you mean. If you get stuck ask yourself
why or how?
lots of qualifiers (very, often, hopefully, practically, basically, really,
Democracy is really good for practically everyone, mostly.
Correct: Eliminate these qualifiers and you will have a stronger, more
two words that mean the same thing
All our hopes and dreams were fulfilled when Adrian became first and
foremost in the public eye after saving the entire planet.
Correct: Choose the most precise term and delete the extra one.
Some “wordy” constructions take a little more practice locating
overuse of prepositional phrases (prepositions are little words such as
in, over, of, for, at, etc.)
The reason for the failure of the economic system of the island was the
inability of Gilligan in finding adequate resources without incurring expenses
at the hands of the headhunters on the other side of the island.
Locate this problem by circling all of the prepositional phrases in your
paper. A few are okay, but several in a sentence (as demonstrated here)
make the reader struggle to find and follow your subject and point.
Correct this problem by reading the sentence, looking away from it, and
writing or saying out loud what you meant when you wrote the sentence. Try
asking yourself “Who did what to whom?” Replace the first sentence
with your new sentence.
Gilligan hurt the economic system of the island because he couldn’t
find adequate resources without angering the headhunters on the other side
of the island.
Stock phrases you can replace with one or two words.
The fact that I did not like the aliens affected our working relationship.
The aliens must be addressed in a professional manner.
Locate this problem as you do cliches. Is this just something people say?
What do the words actually mean?
Correct this problem by looking for a single word that expresses your meaning.
These sentences make just as much sense if you write them as follows:
My dislike of the aliens affected our working relationship.
The aliens must be addressed professionally.
Here’s a list of common or stock phrases to locate in your paper
and replace with a single word (see Joseph M. Williams, Style: Ten Lessons
in Clarity and Grace, pp 93-97):
The reason for because, since, why
For the reason that
Due to the fact that
Owing to the face that
In light of the fact that
Considering the fact that
On the grounds that
Despite the fact that although, even though
Regardless of the fact that
In the event that if
If it should happen that
Under circumstances in which
On the occasion of when
In a situation in which
Under circumstances in which
As regards about
In reference to
With regard to
Concerning the matter of
Where ___ is concerned
It is crucial that must, should
It is necessary that
There is a need/necessity for
It is important that
Is able to can
Is in a position to
Has the opportunity to
Has the capacity for
Has the ability to
It is possible that may, might,
There is a chance that
It could happen that
The possibility exists for
Prior to before, when, as, after
In anticipation of
At the same time as
Not different similar
Not many few
Not have lack
Not include omit
Not consider ignore
Not the same different
Not often rarely
Not allow prevent
Not admit deny
Not accept reject
Nouns (person, place, thing, or concept) and verbs (words that describe
an action or state of being) are the hearts and souls of all sentences.
These become the essential elements–what your grammar teacher may
have called the “subject” and the “predicate” or
the “actor” and “action” of every sentence.
The reader should be able to clearly locate the main subject and verb of
your sentences and, ideally, the subject and verb should be close together
in the sentence. Some style “crimes” are varied symptoms
of one problem: the subjects and verbs or the actor and action of your
sentence are hiding from the reader. Again, the reader has trouble
following “who is doing what to whom.” Instructors may write
comments like “passive voice” or “weak verbs” in
your paper’s margins. While using passive voice or weak verbs
is grammatically correct, they may make the reader work too hard to
decipher your meaning. Use passive voice and weak verbs strategically
once you get the hang of them. If you’re still struggling to figure
out what they are, you need to aim for “active voice” and “strong
verbs” to improve your writing.
Passive Voice—when you hide the actor by putting it somewhere after
the action (not in the usual subject part of the sentence) and add a “to
be” verb you are using passive voice. For more detailed coverage, see
our handout on the Passive Voice. We’ve included some general examples below:
- The alien remains were lost by the government.
- You may even get rid of the actor entirely:
- The alien remains were lost.
- The car was wrecked.
Locate the passive voice in your papers by circling every “to be” verb
(am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being ) in your paper. Not all of these
verbs will indicate a passive construction or one you want to change, but
if the “to be” verb is sitting next to another verb, especially
one that ends in “ed,” (“was lost”, “was wrecked”)
then you are probably using passive voice. If you have trouble finding “to
be verbs,” try finding the subject, verb, and object in each sentence.
Can the reader tell who or what is doing the action in your sentence?
Correct passive constructions by putting that actor back in the subject
of the sentence and getting rid of the “to be” verb. Note that
you have to add information in the sentence; you have to specify who in
your sentence and thereby keep the reader from guessing – that’s good:
- The government lost the alien remains.
- My sister wrecked the car.
Nominalization—a fancy term for making verbs and adjectives into
nouns. Again, sometimes you want to do this. But too much nominalization
in a paper can sound abstract and make the reader work to decipher your
meaning. (Professional academic writing often has a lot of nominalization–that’s
why you may struggle with some of your assigned reading in your courses!)
- The discovery of the aliens was made by the government.
- The car wreck was a result of a lack of visual focus.
Locate nominalization in your papers by circling all of the nouns. Do you
have several in a single sentence? You might be hiding the action (the verb)
of your sentence inside of a noun.
Correct nominalization by returning the abstract noun to its function
as verb or adjective. This will take practice. Focus on making the
sentence simpler in structure:
- The government discovered the aliens.
- My sister wrecked the car when she forgot to wear her glasses.
Also, look for sentences that begin with the following phrases: there is/this
is/that is. Sometimes you need these phrases to refer to an immediately
preceding sentence without repeating yourself, but they may be hiding nominalizations.
- There is a need for further study of aliens.
Again, circle them in your paper and try omitting them from the sentence.
Who is doing what to whom?
- We need to study aliens further.
Weak verbs – if you have located and corrected passive voice and nominalization
problems in your essay, but your sentences still seem to lack meaning or
directness, look for “weak” verbs.
Verbs such as “to be” verbs and “have” verbs can often be replaced by “strong” verbs,
verbs that carry specific meaning. Concentrate on what the subject of your
sentence does and make that the verb in the sentence.
- The aliens have a positive effect on our ecosystem.
Locate weak verbs by circling all of the “to be” and “have” verbs
in your paper.
Correct weak verbs by omitting them and replacing them with a more meaningful
verb. Notice that you will need to add information as you specify the nature
of the action. Answer the question: “What does the subject really do?”
- The aliens improve our ecosystem.
You may be tempted to improve your style by sounding more “academic”
by using multi-syllabic words. Don’t ever do so without looking
up those words to make sure you know exactly what they mean. And don’t
accept the recommendations of your word processing program’s thesaurus – these
tools may be dangerous unless you double-check the meaning of the words
in a dictionary.
Many times, an inappropriate synonym will make you sound
like you don’t know what you are talking about or, worse yet, give
the impression that you are plagiarizing from a source you don’t understand.
Never use a word you can’t clearly define. It’s okay to use big
words if you know them well and they fit your overall tone—just
make sure your tone is consistent.
In other words, don’t say “That miscreant has a superlative aesthetic sense, but he’s dopey.”
You may use overly “erudite” words because you think it is wrong
to use the same words over and over again in an essay. In fact, it’s often
okay to repeat the same word(s) in your paper, particularly when they are
significant or central terms.
For example, if your paper discusses the significance
of memory represented by the scent of wisteria in William Faulkner’s
Absalom, Absalom, you are going to write the words “memory” and “wisteria” a
lot. Don’t start saying “recollection”, “reminiscence”, “summoning
up of past events”, and “climbing woody vine” just to get
a little variation in there. A thesaurus might even lead you to say that
the significance of nostalgia is represented by the odiferous output of
parasitic flowering vegetation. Such sentences may cloud rather than clarify
Now You Are Ready to Edit
You are probably not guilty of every style “crime” in this
pamphlet. If you struggle with one of these issues, focus
your attention on that one. If you struggle with two or more, work
on one at a time. If you try to fix all of them at once, you may find
your approach too scattered or the task just plain overwhelming. You
may also find that you use different styles for different assignments,
with different responses from instructors. Whatever the case, the next
time you finish a paper, take that one issue and isolate it. Edit your
paper using our “locate & correct” suggestions for that
one issue. Ignore everything else (spelling, punctuation, content)
and look for only that one issue. This strategy may sound time consuming,
but by isolating your style problems, you will find them easier to
locate and correct. As you become more proficient, you will include
fewer and fewer examples in your initial draft writing, and therefore
your draft will need less editing. In the end, you will be a better
writer – so what are a few minutes now?
Lanham, Richard A. Revising Prose, 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing
Strunk, William Jr. The Elements of Style, 4th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon,
Williams, Joseph M. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity & Grace, 4th ed.
New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1994.