Introducing Johns Hopkins University Sr. Lecturer, Karen Houppert
Whether you're pecking away at your memoir, writing a novel, or simply emailing a prospective client, strong writing can dramatically improve your ability to influence. The written word matters — especially in this social media culture where most of our communicating is done via the keyboard. So focusing on eloquence, concision, and re-reading before you press “send” can radically alter people’s perception of your smarts.
Karen Houppert, Associate Director of the MA in Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University, whose journalism has appeared in publications ranging from The Washington Post to The Nation, says that in the course of writing her three books and coaching graduate students over the years, she has distilled the basics down to 10 Tips.
We share them here:
1. Avoid Unnecessary Qualifiers.
Watch for the use of words like “about,” “usually,” “sometimes,” “very,” “around,” “many” “seemed to,” etc. Cull them from your sentences, and your prose will be succinct and sharp.
“It was about 5 p.m. I’d been in the mall since around noon.” (So mushy.)
“It was 5 p.m. I’d been in the mall since noon.” (Succinct and sharp.)
2. Use Adverbs Sparingly.
If you’ve got good dialogue and strong verbs, you can delete the adverbs.
“He gestured emphatically.” (Meh.)
“He shook his fist.” (Better.)
“The pedestrian hurriedly walked across the street.” (Like, at a gentle trot? A gallop?)
“The pedestrian dashed across the street.” (Ah, got it.)
3. Delete, as implied.
Don’t over-spell for readers. Force them to work a little to make connections, and they will be more active and engaged readers. Consider this short story attributed to Hemingway: “For sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn.” (Leaves us wondering, right?)
This also applies to unnecessary words at the sentence level.
“The boy was aged 7.”
“The boy was 7.”
4. Avoid Passive Voice (most of the time).
Top pet peeve among editors because it makes the writing dull to read. Make sure that the subject of the sentence is doing the action.
The rat was chased by the cat. (passive)
The cat chased the rat. (active)
The politician: “Mistakes were made.” Hmm. Can you see the problem with passive voice here? Who made the mistakes?
5. Avoid word repetitions.
The difference between students was apparent just by sitting in on one class. Apparently, the undergraduates understood the lesson while the graduate students remained puzzled.
Or, use repetitions intentionally, artfully, as James Joyce does here:
“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
6. Watch “It was” and “There is” constructions.
Usually there is a way around them and if you cut them and sub in a better verb your sentences will be sharp and succinct.
“It was our first trip to New York and there was so much traffic we were terrified.”
“In New York for the first time, the onslaught of traffic terrified us.”
7. “I think’s” and “To me’s”
“I think politicians are obsessed with their rags-to-riches narratives.” (11 words)
“Politicians love their rags-to-riches stories.” (7 words)
“But to me, they all sound the same and are a bit silly.” (13 words)
“But they are too familiar, trite.” (6 words)
8. Get your parallel construction right.
Consider the Sesame Street song “One of these things is not like the other.” Remember that each element in the list must work with the sentence stem.
“What is it about this writing conference that keeps authors coming back year after year, navigating highways, shifting work schedules, and the struggles of personal lives?”
“What is it about this writing conference that keeps authors coming back year after year, navigating highways, shifting work schedules, and juggling family responsibilities?”
9. Beware of sentence fragments. Only employ them strategically, artfully.
Here’s one from the opening chapter of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth:
“The way Archie saw it, country people should die in the country and city people should die in the city. Only proper. In death as he was in life and all that.”
10. Verbs. Use lovely, evocative verbs.
These sentences come from a feature story, “The Life and Times of Strider Wolf,” that ran in the Boston Globe.
“…clothes and pots and toys clotted the floor of the galley kitchen.”
“He pummeled the boy.”
“He aped Larry.”
“He…lay in a hospital bed webbed in tubing, bandages, and monitors.”
Any professional writers out there want to add their two cents? If so, let us know in the comments below!