Tip: Don’t overuse the to be verb (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been) or the have verb (have, has, had) in your sentences. When you edit your work, look for any forms of these verbs and replace them with stronger ones. Choose verbs that have specific meanings, so readers aren’t left with vague descriptions. For example, revise “The CEO has a positive effect on our company” to eliminate the weak has verb and revise the sentence so that it describes what the “positive effect” actually is: “The CEO brings strong leadership to our company.” Also, use the present and past tenses of verbs—it keeps your writing more immediate and “in the present”—instead of the present- and past-progressive tenses. For example, replace “She is thinking” with “She thinks” or “He is working” with “He works.”
Mark Twain wrote by following rules. His own. Here is one we should all follow: “Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very. Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” This is a humorous way of saying, “Eliminate unnecessary words. Everything you write should be clear and concise.” Words we can all write by.
“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”
– C. J. Cherryh
Wordy, convoluted, unclear writing has been a problem for centuries in both the public and private sectors. But the federal government took a big step to address the issue by passing the Plain Writing Act of 2010. Simply put, the Act states that every document a federal employee writes that will be read by a taxpayer must be written in plain English. Here are some of the highlights of the Act:
- The purpose of this Act is to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.
- The head of each agency shall designate one or more senior officials within the agency to oversee the agency implementation of this Act, communicate the requirements of this Act to the employees of the agency, and train employees of the agency in plain writing.
- Agencies will also create and maintain a plain writing section of the agency’s website that is accessible from the homepage of the agency’s website.
- Beginning not later than one year after the date of enactment of this Act, each agency shall use plain writing in every document the agency issues or substantially revises.
These two writing tips go hand-in-hand: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” — Louis L’Amour, and “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” ― Jodi Picoult. They are good reminders that when you have writer’s block, and we all do from time to time, you should write something, anything! to get the juices flowing.
1. “A sentence should never be cruel and unusual.” — William C. Burton, attorney
2. “I have made this letter longer that usual because I lack the time to make it shorter.” — Blaise Pascal, mathematician
3. “Clarity begins at home.” — Edie Schwager, speaker with the American Medical Writers Association
4. “The trouble with so many of us is that we underestimate the power of simplicity.” — Robert Stuberg, author and speaker
5. “I never write metropolis for seven cents when I can write city and get paid the same.” — Mark Twain, author
6. “When writing about science, don’t simplify the science; simplify the writing.” — Julie Ann Miller, former editor of Science News
7. “This report, by its very length, defends itself against the risk of being read.” — Winston Churchill, former British prime minister
8. “All good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. — Anne Lamott, author
9. “Good writing is clear thinking made visible.” — William Wheeler, journalist and author
10. “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne, author
Plain writing (aka, plain language and plain English) is simply another term for clear and concise writing, something writing instructors have been trying to instill in their students for literally centuries. Plain Writing has a number of definitions. One good one is: “A communication is in plain writing if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can readily find what they need, understand it, and use it.” But Albert Einstein—a plain writing master long before the term was coined—made a keen observation that applies to writing and just about every other human endeavor: “Any fool can make things bigger and more complex, but it takes a touch of genius to go in the other direction.”
Put one space after each sentence when using proportionally-spaced fonts, which means just about every font found on a computer including the one on this webpage (notice that an i takes up less than half the character-space width of an m). Put two spaces after sentences when using mono-spaced fonts, such as Courier New and those found on a typewriter. With mono-spaced fonts, an i takes up the exact same character-space width as an m. Reading documents written with mono-spaced fonts becomes, well, monotonous, so someone long ago decided to put two spaces at the end of each sentence to make it more readable and to act as an “eye rest.” It’s hard for some people to make this change because they’ve been putting two spaces at the end of a sentence forever. But if you need final proof of this rule, open any book, newspaper or magazine: you’ll find only one space at the end of each sentence.
Many scholars think so. Without it, the history of the world would be drastically different. The alphabet was invented in Egypt around 2000 B.C. as a writing method to show the sounds of words. Its earliest readers read aloud and reading aloud continued to be the standard practice throughout ancient and medieval times. About 26 major alphabetic scripts are used worldwide. The English alphabet was handed down to us from the Romans (who only had 23 letters in their alphabet; it did not have a J, V, or W). Today, the English alphabet is the most popular script in the world, used by about 100 principal languages, 120 countries and nearly 2 billion people. Because an alphabet is so easy to learn, it became the vehicle of mass literacy, starting with the Egyptians back in 2000 B.C. It allowed farmers, shopkeepers and others of the humblest origins to read and write and, therefore, attain skills and knowledge that improved their lives.
T.S. Eliot once said, “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” The English language was following that dictum centuries before Eliot was born. No fewer than 600,000 words have been used in English writing since the twelfth century. So where did they all come from? We, that is, English speakers since the dawn of the language, were very good at stealing them. For example, alcohol and alkali are from Arabic, amok from Malay, bizarre from Basque, okay from West Africa, taboo from Tahitian, and the list goes on and on and on. In 2018, the Oxford English Dictionary‘s latest update added 1,400 new words to the language, from bongga (Tagalog for impressive, excellent or stylish) to belly-bumper (a U.S. term for a head-first ride down a hill on a sled, though it was also used in the 17th century to denote a Rabelaisian womanizer). The English language is a living, constantly expanding organism—and how fun it is to watch it grow!