During my 34-year career writing everything from 140-character tweets to 89,000-word novels, I’ve come across some hacks that can help improve anyone’s writing.
1. Kill the passives
Passive verbs, aka forms of “to be” — is, are, was, were, am, and be — make your sentences longer and lazier. I use Microsoft (MS) Word’s Find and Replace function to highlight them all — then replace as many as I can with active verbs. Active verbs reduce word count and energize writing.
Passive: They were told by Jose that they had to go to the park. (13 words, 55 characters)
Active: Jose told them they had to go to the park. (10 words, 44 characters)
Even better: Jose told them they must go to the park. (9 words, 31 characters)
The goal isn’t to get rid of all passive verbs (there are two in this sentence, after all) but just to use them sparingly.
2. Use free word counters
MS Word has an easy-to-use word count function. Highlight the text you want to count, then hit Control+Shift+G to see the word count. In Google docs, it’s Control+Shift+C. Try to shave down the word count with each editing pass. It becomes a challenge to see how low you can go.
3. Read it out loud
You can read it yourself or have MS Word read it to you. Open your doc, place your cursor at the start of what you want to be read, go to Review, click Read Aloud, and off it goes. Click Read Aloud again to stop the reading. You’ll hear the flabby writing and grammatical errors. This is usually my final edit step.
4. Cut the wordy sentences
Overly formal writing can morph into sentences that include more words and syllables than necessary. Ask yourself what the sentence is really trying to say. Often you can rewrite it to make it more clear and reduce word count. Example:
Original: The question as to whether he will go will be decided by Jake.
Less wordy: Whether he will go will be decided by Jake.
Even better: Jake will decide whether he will go.
You can usually chop words like “basis” or “standpoint”:
Original: I take vitamins on a daily basis.
Less wordy: I take vitamins daily.
Original: Business was bad this year from a revenue standpoint.
Less wordy: Business revenue was bad this year.
5. Let drafts sit
In my three decades as a professional writer, letting something sit for a day between edits has always helped me make it better. If you can’t leave it overnight, let it sit for an hour or even 15 minutes. Go to something else. When you come back to it you’ll find fresh ways to improve it.
6. Print it
Editing a paper copy helps me catch stuff I miss on the screen. You can minimize environmental impact by making this your very last edit step. If you don’t want to kill trees, try changing the onscreen font. Making writing look different can help you catch overlooked errors.
7. Exterminate your verbal roaches
Like every writer, I overuse some words. They seem to always creep in, like literary cockroaches. My roach list contains some words commonly overused by writers and some that are unique to me:
- As well
- Well, (to start a sentence)
- So, (to start a sentence)
Unfortunately, your roach list can change over time. You finally stop “very” 15 times and now find “almost” cropping up all over. Stay vigilant and smash the roaches.
8. Use online writing tools
Use MS Word’s spell check. I also use Grammarly as an extension to Chrome for Google docs and an add-in on Word. Let these tools bring possible errors to your attention, then use your own judgment. Always spellcheck one last time before you send something to your client or supervisor.
I followed my own advice, making eight editing runs through this over three days:
First draft: 925 words.
Last draft: 807 words.
Happy cutting. Know a good writer hack? Please share it with us.