Concrete Ways to Revise for Clarity
Ever get feedback from an editor that says something like “clarify” or “make less dense” or “streamline?” Ever been frustrated (or daunted) by how abstract that feedback is? I have. I’ve also been that editor.
I’ve also been the editor who, rather than offering a detailed explanation of what she thought would make the piece better, rewrote a section so the piece could be published. In the long run, though, that costs everyone more time. So after years of not investing in putting together this guide to translating abstract feedback into concrete to-dos, I’m finally doing it. Here. Now. Enjoy.
Sure, I’m stealing some of this from Strunk and White. But do you really have time to read Strunk and White? You don’t. Read this.
Verbs are my favorite part of speech because they’re the most efficient way to convey meaning. Watch this:
Cream dispersed through the coffee.
Cream writhed through the coffee.
See the difference? That’s verbs. They’re powerful. They’ll do a lot of work if you let them. And they’re a great place to look when a sentence feels weak, unclear, or clunky. Here are some constructions to look out for:
- Verb + preposition: Do you really need that preposition? Often, you don’t. As writers, we tend to err on the side of EXTREME CLARITY, but readers usually get our drift (partly because of the might of verbs). E.g., “The debt shrunk down” can be edited to “The debt shrunk.” Or maybe you can revise to use a verb that doesn’t need a preposition: “She walked up the stairs” becomes “She climbed the stairs.”
- Verb + adverb: Try to find a stronger verb. E.g., “She ate her lunch quickly” becomes “She scarfed her lunch.” (See? You don’t even need “down.”)
- -ing verbs: There’s nothing wrong with -ing verbs, but I recommend being skeptical of them in revision. In the past tense, you can often revise a “to be + -ing” construction to a simple past tense. E.g., “She was working while they were eating dinner” becomes “She worked while they ate dinner.” (Note: this doesn’t usually work in the present tense in English. Second note: this isn’t always necessary, but -ings are a good place to look if you’re trying to streamline.)
Does a sentence with a list in it feel unclear or awkward? Could be that you’re not using parallel structure. Whether the list lives in bullets or the body of a sentence, all items in that list must take the same grammatical form.
Here’s an example of a list done wrong: “Check out apps like Mint, Personal Capital, or use a budgeting template.” This sentence structure tells us to apply the verb “check out” to all three list items, which translates to: “Check out Mint; check out Personal Capital; check out use a budgeting template.” As Cathy would say, “Ack!”
A correct rewrite could be: “Check out apps like Mint and Personal Capital or use a budgeting template.” If you hate all those coordinating conjunctions, consider a two-sentence rewrite: “Check out apps like Mint and Personal Finance. If you hate apps, consider a budgeting template!”
Crisp prose is all about economy. Cutting fluff is a great way to tighten loose sentences. Some common examples of fluff:
- “In order,” which can usually be cut. E.g., “In order to arrive on time, I took a cab” becomes “To arrive on time, I took a cab.”
- “That said,” “that being said,” “having said that” – what, are you trying to hit a word count? Cut!
- “A more substantial amount of” = “more.”
- “Reason why” = “reason.”
- Double comparisons. E.g., “She worked as hard as an oxen or a team of skiers preparing for the Olympics.” When you see an “or” or “and” joining two examples, ask if you need both. Often, the best move for the sentence is to choose the strongest and move on.
There are plenty other examples. People use fluff because they’re scared their words won’t be strong enough without it. And maybe they won’t. Cut the fluff and see what you’ve got. If it doesn’t hold up, you’re not done revising.
Prepositions are like corrective lenses: the right ones make things clear, but too many can make things blurry. I’m not saying you should avoid prepositions – that would be terrible advice. But if you’re getting feedback that your writing feels dense or unclear, look at how you’re using prepositions. For example:
- Stacked prepositional phrases: Prepositional phrases may be to blame for droopy-feeling sentences. E.g., “She went to the meeting at the Department of Labor to get the minutes” could become “She went to the Labor Department meeting to get the minutes” or “She got the minutes at the Labor Department meeting” or “She went to the Labor Department meeting, where she got the minutes.” In other words, there’s no single way to fix these. Try rewriting to eliminate a few prepositional phrases or breaking it into multiple sentences. (Note: don’t be afraid to try things a dozen ways. As you practice, you’ll learn shortcuts that work best and you’ll get faster.)
- Passive voice: The classic example of passive voice is straightforward: “The light was turned on by me,” instead of “I turned on the light.” See that extra “by” in there, rendering the action passive? It’s almost always best to use the active voice. But offenders aren’t always so straightforward. Take this example: “Green tea is popular among my friends.” Here, there’s technically an active voice (green tea is popular), but the active verb is a “to be” verb, which is one of the weakest verbs you can use. Why not “My friends love green tea” or “My friends drink green tea by the bucket” or even “My friends swear by green tea.” We take out the soggy “among” phrase and offer a more precise sense of how popular this beverage is.
- Sentences that make a BIG DEAL of not ending in a preposition: Guess what. If you’re writing in a conversational register, it’s more important to write in human-sounding language than to avoid ending a sentence in a preposition. And if you’re writing on the web, it’s probably best to sound conversational. So don’t write “Coffee’s a drink without which I can’t live,” write, “Coffee’s a drink I can’t live without.” (Or, really, “I can’t live without coffee!”)
There is no umbrella theme to these, except that I notice them a lot in work I edit.
- “Toward” vs. “towards:” “Toward” is standard in the US; “towards” in the UK.
- “Gray” vs. “grey:” “Gray” is the US standard. “Grey” is standard in the UK (and often in sci-fi and fantasy that takes itself too seriously. THERE. I SAID IT.)
- “Seemingly:” Is this word ever necessary? I vote no. It’s long and clunky. Try to write around it. E.g., “She had seemingly never used the software before” could become “She fumbled her way through the login.” (That’s kind of a “show, don’t tell” example, I guess.)
- “While” at the beginning of a sentence: Cutting this can add crispness. E.g., “While on my walk, I saw a dog” becomes “On my walk, I saw a dog,” or even “Walking, I saw a dog.” In both rewrites, the “while” is implied. If you can remove a word without changing the meaning of a sentence, remove it. The second rewrite I offer, from “On my walk” to “Walking” is stylistic and should be driven by context, but it has the benefit of being an -ing verb, which (caution: creative writing MFA) enacts the motion it describes. WHAT?! Starting the sentence with a verb starts it with more energy and motion, which is what the sentence depicts! Wheeeee!
- “As” and “than” phrases: Make sure the phrase starts and ends with the same type of comparison. E.g., “They are as good if not better than the competition” should be “They are as good as, if not better than, the competition” or, for the streamliners out there, “They are at least as good as the competition.”
- Things that are okay in speech but not correct in writing: There’s a difference between writing with voice and writing exactly as you speak. E.g., “You can buy them right off the web,” which I saw in a real blog. To “buy something off” someone is informal, which isn’t a problem per se, but it implies extreme informality (“I bought these old tires off Tom”). A more standard phrase would be “You can buy them online.” Remember: without vocal inflection, many phrases that sound fine in speech become confusing or take on a different meaning on the page. When in doubt, choose what’s standard.
- En dashes, em dashes, and commas: There’s a lot of ground to cover here. If you’ve never heard of en or em dashes, read what the Chicago Manual of Style has to say on the matter. I’m mainly concerned with the use of dashes in lieu of commas or parentheses. I love dashes and think they’re wonderful for adding a sense of energy in some writing. But they’re considered nonstandard use. If you’re not confident in your use of en or em dashes (or if you are confident but your editors keep changing what you do), stick to commas and parentheses.
The trend in business speak is to make words and sentences longer than necessary. The result is needlessly complex (or long) sentences, incorrect usage, and the feeling (for me, at least) that my teeth itch. Here are some examples of things to question / edit:
- “Myself” instead of “me:” The easy way to remember this: unless you’re also using “I,” don’t use “myself.” E.g., “I made myself nachos.” Yes! Brava! This is wrong: “It was just Carl and myself standing on that dock.” No. It was Carl and me.
- “Utilize” where “use” will do: Here’s a great article on how to know when to use which version. TL;DR: “utilize” essentially means using off-label, or finding a way to use something that might not have seemed useful; “use” means what you think it means.
- “Architect” vs. “build:” It can be tempting to use more syllables to sound smart, but if a simple word works, use it.
- “Learnings:” Nope. The word you want is “lessons.”
- “Action items:” What’s wrong with “to-dos?”
So… Am I a Famous Writer Now?
Depends. But even if you’re not, you do have a practical revision guide to help you turn vague editorial recommendations into better prose (or, honestly, poetry). And I think some people would agree* that that’s much more valuable.