Paula LaRocque: Some tips for clear and graceful writing
Noted writing coach Paula LaRocque brought her years of experience to the 2007 Will Rogers Writers’ Workshop in Oklahoma City where she shared some of her ideas about writing. Here are a few of her tips to improve your writing:
Keep sentences short. The period is one of the clear writer’s best friends. Sentence lengths should vary to avoid tedium.
Keep to one idea per sentence. That doesn’t mean one fact or figure, but one idea.
Avoid jargon and formula. Avoid language that your audience does not share. Avoid formula writing and trite expression in all cases.
Avoid having more than three numbers in one sentence. For instance: “The 9th grade students did well on most of the 3-part test with at least 85 percent of the students at more than two-thirds of the schools passing seven of 28 test objectives.”
Avoid having more than three prepositional phrases in one sentence. Especially unattractive are such phrases running consecutively or starting with the same proposition.
Keep to subject — verb — object sentences generally. Avoid the unnecesary use of the passive voice.
Avoid backing into sentences with long dependent clauses. This guideline applies especially to first sentences.
Change long and difficult words to short and simple ones. Consider: “United Nations officials on Tuesday said that they had intelligence information indicating that Iraq had attempted to mislead United Nations investigators by understating its nuclear weapon program and the amount of weapon-grade nuclear material it now possesses.” Same information, using simple words: “U.N. officials said Tuesday that Iraq had understated the amount of its nuclear weapon stock.”
Cut deadwood and redundancy. Wordy: “There were three or four people in the committee who said that the company needed to give a demonstration of how its new equipment functions.” Non-wordy: “Several committee members said the company should demonstrate its new equipment.”
Use single active verbs instead of several weak words. They made a decision should be they decided; they have the intention should be they intend.
Choose concrete over abstract terms. Indicate should be show; thunderstorm activity should be thunderstorms; crisis situation should be crisis; surgical intervention should be surgery.
Avoid vague qualifiers and choose the precise word. Here are some vague qualifers that fuss up our writing: very extremely, really, rather, somewhat, quite, truly, extremely, basically, totally.
Try to communicate with rather than impress the readers. Consider this press release: “The state air control board is initiating a Strategic Enforcement Priorities Plan ’94, a plan which will create a more effective enforcement program characterized by placing a heavier emphasis on strategic priorities and targeting use of resources.” Such pretentious, abstract language hides simple ideas: “The state air control board will follow a wider enforcement plan in 1994 that will focus on strategic goals and resource use.”
Ask yourself how you would say it if you were saying it, and use that graceful conversational style for your writing, too.
You can learn more valuable information about writing from Paula LaRocque by obtaining one or more of her books.