I had a certain Professor in college that struck fear in the hearts of English majors at my university. If a bright-eyed student wanted a degree in English, they had to take a certain feared Professor’s class. His demeanor was jovial if a student encountered him outside of class. He was even sarcastic and particularly talented at holding a fun, time-accelerating conversation. However, he was brutal when teaching, and worse when critiquing. Inside the boundaries of class, he harbored no mental editing giving the cold, hard truth of his thoughts concerning a student’s written word. I witnessed at least three young men on football scholarships cry in the face of his brutality, and he definitely made me cry on four separate occasions.
The real story behind this abuser of students’ attempt at coherent scribbles has nothing to do with the physicality of the last paragraph. The real story has everything to do with the meaning behind the physical words. (To be blunt: I made no mention of the true meaning of the story, but the real meaning should be the one question a reader needs to ask). The method of the Professor’s traumatizing teaching abilities is not the moral of the story, the real moral of the story – the question a reader should ask – is: What were the effects of the Professor’s teachings?
Before the Professor managed to throw his demeaning metaphors my way, I was a passable writer. Afterwards, my writing had noticeably improved. The Professor said many things to me during my time with him. All of those tidbits of sarcastic knowledge stayed with me through my career delivering academic papers in college, and my – currently – brief stint as a published author. I wish to pass these tidbits to other passable writers in need of improvement.
While I would love to hate my Professor for the hell he put me through, I find I spout the same vitriol – in my head – as I edit other people’s work. I, at least, do a better job of keeping my thoughts from verbal spillage – most of the time.
An important thought writers need to keep in mind as they write is to pretend to write for an audience of sixth graders. Admittedly, sixth graders do not know much, which means explaining everything in excruciating detail.
A writer needs to think of their work as a detailed road map of their thought process. The first paragraph contains an attention grabber, a thesis, and a list of street signs. A street sign in writing is a reiterated version of the first sentence of each body paragraph.
Place a street sign as the first sentence of the body paragraph to signal the reader of where they are in the written work. The rest of the paragraph should be the details of the sign’s meaning. In street terms, a writer is giving landmark details of what is around each street sign. This is where the excruciating detail for sixth graders should reside.
The last paragraph is a summation of the paper. This paragraph includes everything that was implied in each body paragraph and not bluntly stated. Think of these implications as lessons the reader intuits during their travel. Maybe throw in one final lesson depending on the purpose of the writing.
Most passable writers make some of the following mistakes: improper comma usage, neglecting the Oxford comma, wordiness, and passive voice. Comma usage is proper grammar no matter the formalness of the writing. The rest has little to do with grammar and lends more to style and flow.
Many people neglect using the comma entirely, which is not passable writing. Neglect of the comma is simply bad writing. Commas are stop signs in the writer’s work (assuming periods are like stop lights). If there is no stop sign at a particular intersection, the lack of such a sign could cause many accidents. Similarly, if there is no comma where there should be a comma, the lack could cause many strange and insulting miscommunications.
However, there is one particular comma I implore writers to use. The Oxford (or serial) comma is the final comma in a list of things (example below). I have come across many journalist articles that argues against using the Oxford comma. One distinct article – which I will not link because of the writer’s shear idiocy – argued that not using the Oxford comma saves time for journalists and use of the Oxford comma should not be enforced. In my opinion, if not pressing a button while typing saves a journalist’s time, they should take typing lessons to either learn how to type, or practice typing faster. Admittedly, I only read one article, but I can not imagine any argument that would turn me from using the Oxford comma. The Oxford comma helps with style, flow, and most important, understanding.
Example of missing Oxford comma:
Hannah forgot to empty the recycling, fill the copier and take out the trash.
Example of Oxford comma:
Hannah forgot to empty the recycling, fill the copier, and take out the trash.
For me, wordiness is a dirty word. In terms of the road map metaphor, wordiness means taking the unfavorable scenic route and unnecessarily passing the biggest ball of twine. (If someone is enthused by the biggest ball of twine, I apologize for neglecting the beauty of collected string). In my opinion, a wasted trip when a reader just wants the writer to expediently get to the point. Whereas adjectives in a sentence gives the reader a favorable scenic route stimulating the imagination. Hence, I do not consider adjectives wordiness.
Greg has had a lot of grief in his life.
Technically, the above example is grammatically correct. The sentence is wordy because it contains a useless word that impedes flow. The example lumps has had together. The writer can take out either has or had to reduce wordiness. Critically speaking, having both has and had together makes me think the writer has difficulty making up their mind, and is unintentionally taking the reader along for the ride.
Greg had a lot of grief in his life.
A few other things to reduce wordiness is the word so at the beginning of a sentence, excessive use of that, and repetitive adjectives. The word so at the beginning of a sentence is not a good transition word. If a writer is in need of a transition, there are many others to choose from (i.e., thus, therefore, hence, etc.). In my experience, if I feel the need to use so as a transition word, the sentence likely does not need a transition in the beginning, which is why I consider so wordy.
Excessive use of the word that is detrimental to the health of a written piece. Always remember the English language is expansive and a writer has many ways to express thought. I encourage a writer to find – and practice – creative ways to make sentences work other than using that more than once or twice. Otherwise, excessive use of that drastically obstructs sentence flow and the word will be stuck in a reader’s head all day driving them insane. (I had one reader make the same complaint regarding my overuse of the word yet). I will, also, add obviously to the list since I had a Professor who thought it superfluous.
Another way to eliminate wordiness is to check basic sentence structures. If a writer’s sentences seem confusingly complex, there is no shame in going back to basic sentences. Sometimes having a simple sentence to break up complex sentences helps the reader remain in the writer’s thought process, and maybe, take a breath.
Last on my list to help passable writers become better writers is passive voice. Most writers and readers are unaware of the existence that is passive voice, which is grammatically correct, though I highly discourage excessive use.
The unfortunately poorly written sentence was written by Greg.
Passive voice produces a sentence in which the subject receives an action. When read aloud, passive voice generally feels bulky on the tongue circling back to wordiness’s biggest ball of twine. Also, passive voice can instigate miscommunication and – more deadly – confusion.
Greg wrote the unfortunately poorly written sentence.
The writer switches from passive voice to active voice, keeping the favorably scenic adjectives, and the sentence seems more direct for the reader. Active voice means the subject performs the action denoted by the verb.
I can come up with a few more tips and tricks to help passable writers, which I will possibly use in later posts. If a future writer sets off my inner editing demon (lovingly named after the Professor from hell), future helpful writing posts are assured.