Writing Mini-Lessons: Troubleshooting,
Surefire Ways to Weaken Your Writing
This is an ongoing, multiple-part mini-lesson that addresses some of the small mistakes that many writers make. I did not learn about these surefire ways to weaken writing until I was well into adulthood, and these small errors are made by writers of all ages. It is easy to fall prey to these minor mistakes if you aren’t aware of them. These aren’t egregious errors, but they can weaken writing. With just a few guidelines and rules, you can make your writing strong from the start. This mini-lesson is divided into the following topics:
- The Really Bad Words
- Too-Long and Too-Short Paragraphs
- The Missing I
- Passive Sentences
- Exclamation Points
- Hopefully and a Few Other Sins
- Stories that End "The End"
The Really Bad Words
"Good writing is lean and confident."
~ William Zinsser
Lean, confident writing includes what is essential without irrelevant clutter. In that sense, the title of this rule is a joke because one of the bad words is really. It is an intensifier: a word a writer sticks in, in an attempt to make a sentence more intense—stronger, more authoritative, more powerful. The trouble is, intensifiers like really and very weaken your writing. They qualify your feelings, dilute your style, and take away your power. Diminishers like sort of and just do the same.
Below are the worst offenders of the Really Bad Words that occur most often in your writing.
|all||kind of||sort of|
|(a) big||(a) little||totally|
Here is an example of a Really Bad Paragraph, filled with the clutter of Really Bad Words:
Every night at camp, when we were totally tired out from playing the game, we would all sort of fall down in a big pile on the floor of our cabin. We would just laugh and laugh—it was really so much fun. Then, after we would calm down a little bit, we would suddenly be very, very hungry. Our counselor would be quite mad that our cabin was always awake after lights out, but hopefully we could get her to just chill out and let us eat chips and stuff we really weren’t supposed to have at camp.
Compare the cluttered paragraph above to the paragraph below, which has been rewritten without Really Bad Words:
At night, after we were exhausted from playing the game, we collapsed in a heap on the floor of the cabin. We lay there in a tangle of arms and legs and shook with giggles. When the laughter died out, hunger took over. We were starving. We drove our counselor crazy that summer because when the other cabins were quiet and dark, ours was alive with the sounds of eight girls shrieking, roughhousing, and rattling bags of forbidden junk food.
As William Zinsser says, "Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold." Strong, solid statements don’t need to be intensified or diminished. If someone is gorgeous, she is gorgeous—really gorgeous is clutter. If someone is very funny, couldn’t he be hilarious or hysterical instead?
What about Really Bad Words in dialogue? That is different. American conversation is salted with intensifiers and diminishers, and your written dialogue should capture the way people speak in conversation. If appropriate, use the Really Bad Words to bring your people to life.
The general rule of thumb is this: use the Really Bad Words only when necessary. Otherwise, delete them. Cross them out. Make them go away. Your writing will be stronger without them.
Too-Long and Too-Short Paragraphs
"Remember that paragraphing calls for a good eye as well as a logical mind. Enormous blocks of print
look formidable to a reader. He has a certain reluctance to tackle them; he can lose his way in them."
~ E. B. White
"Writing is visual—it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain.
Shorter paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting."
~ William Zinsser
Readers need air. They need breathing space—a place to rest their eyes and minds. The writer’s responsibility is to provide readers with signals. With the indentation of a new paragraph, the writer signals, saying, "Okay, reader, I’m going to shift your attention slightly so I can develop a new direction here." So look at your long paragraphs, and even if it is not necessary for meaning or organization to break them into two or three shorter paragraphs, break them as an aid to the reader.
Beware, however, because as William Zinsser notes, "A succession of tiny paragraphs is as annoying as a paragraph that’s too long." Too many short paragraphs can disrupt the flow of a piece, jolting the reader. So the key to perfect paragraphing is practice. Experiment with putting sentences together into units, and then reading and revising them for coherence and appearance. In revising paragraphs, remember Ursula LeGuin’s words. She says: "It matters where you put those little indents. They show connections and separations in the flow; they are architecturally essential."
The Missing I
There are genres of writing where the personal pronoun I isn’t allowed: stories in newspapers and newsmagazines, grant proposals, and business reports. The readers of these pieces want objectivity. However, most of what you write in sixth grade needs that sort of objectivity. Your personal narratives are impressions of your lives. Your poems are explorations of your feelings, ideas, and experiences. Your essays are expressions of your opinions and beliefs, and your responses to literature are your assessments of a book and your accounts of the experience of reading it.
So please be wary of two personal pronouns that can sneak into your writing, take away your voice, and annihilate your I. The first culprit is we. When a writer adopts a we voice, the reader has no individual to be with or to experience a moment or emotion as. Furthermore, unless an I voice is present, a writer cannot tell his own thoughts and feelings, and the reader misses out on an essential element of the piece. Do not hide behind we. Tell your story; describe your actions and feelings; give the reader you: a person to be with, to see and feel with, and to care about.
The other personal pronoun writers sometimes hide behind is you. Then the writer resorts to describing his own opinion under cover of what a you thinks about a book, problem, or situation. It may be uncomfortable to use that I and take responsibility for your own feelings and ideas, but do it. Be confident. Take back your I. Use you only when you mean you: the reader, when you’re speaking directly to the reader, perhaps to give advice or provide instruction.
Read the examples below of a piece with the missing I and then with the I added. Can you hear and feel the difference? The reader wants to connect—to put himself in the writer’s shoes: to learn what the writer knows, to experience his ideas and emotions. So be self-confident and put your I into your written pieces.
The Missing I: Before and After
When you read Chris Crutcher’s Running Loose, you will feel as if you are Louie, and you will cry.
You understand when you read teen magazines that if you want to be considered attractive, you have to lose twenty pounds, grow a longer neck and legs, and do something about your nose. You feel assaulted and demoralized.
After I read Running Loose, I identified so closely with Louie that I felt his feelings and, when the final tragedy struck, I cried.
After I read the latest issues of the top three teen magazines, I understood that to be considered attractive, within the magazine culture, I’d have to lose twenty pounds, grow a longer neck and legs, and do something +-about my nose. I felt assaulted by the images. And I felt demoralized—not self-confident, not okay in my looks, not good enough.
"The habitual use of the active voice makes for forcible writing. This is true not
only in narrative concerned principally with action, but in writing of any kind."
~ Strunk and White in The Elements of Style
Passive sentences are devoid of actors. Usually they use forms of the verb to be to suggest that someone did something, by telling that something was done. Instead of including an actor—a person—up front as the subject of a sentence, passive constructions hide the actor and weaken the writing. Here’s an example of a passive sentence: "Musical librettos were distributed and roles assigned." By whom and to whom? The action and the actor in the sentence are both hidden. Now look at the sentence with an active construction: "Ms. McClure distributed the musical librettos to the sixth graders and assigned each student a role."
An active sentence credits the actor, including the I persona that is negated in a passive construction. "I spent four hours updating the class website this weekend" is an active construction. "Updating the class website this weekend took many hours" is the passive construction. It’s ambiguous and indirect. So in your writing, review your sentences to be certain they are alive with actors.
Here is the sixth grade rule about exclamation points: don’t use them unless you have no choice. I have noticed that some of you use exclamation points nearly as often as you use periods. Too many exclamation points can make writing sound gushy or cutesy; they hit readers over the head—Be surprised! Be excited! Laugh at my clever witticism. Excessive exclamation points rob the reader of the pleasure of discovering excitement, wonder, humor, and irony for herself.
When it comes to exclamation points, shoot for understatement. Remember that your reader is smart. If the point you are making is humorous, and if the sentence is constructed to emphasize the humor, the reader will catch the joke.
However, exclamation points in dialogue are different. Your dialogue should capture the way people speak in conversation. Additionally, commands often need exclamation points, as do lines of dialogue such as, "The classroom is on fire!"
When you write, remember to use exclamation points only when you have no other choice.
Hopefully and a Few Other Sins
Hopefully is perhaps one of the most frequently misused words in the English language. It is an adverb meaning "in a hopeful manner." The word has been misused often enough that many believe it means "I hope" or "we hope." It does not. The literal meaning of the sentence, "Hopefully I will pass sixth grade this year" is "When I pass sixth grade this year, I will be full of hope." Instead of using hopefully incorrectly, be old: use the phrase I hope. Say, "I hope I will pass sixth grade this year."
While hopefully is an actual word, there are some locutions appearing in your writing that aren’t. You need to know these so you can discontinue their use. Here they are.
- Alot is two words: a lot just like a few.
- Alright is all wrong; it is two words: all right.
- Gonna, gotta, wanna, and hafta should be written as English words: going to, got to, want to, and have to.
- Would of, could of, and should of are really would’ve, could’ve, and should’ve in dialogue and would have, could have, and should have everywhere else.
- Unless you are writing about several whats or thats, the correct spelling of these contractions is that’s (short for that is) and what’s (short for what is).
Stories that End "The End"
Primary students love to conclude their stories with "The End." It is a concrete way to make a piece of writing stop, and it echoes the "The Ends" of fairy tales and story books they may be reading. Nevertheless, "The End" at the end of a piece is not charming, nor is it necessary. In fact, if you had Ms. Brown for first grade, you already know and have internalized this important rule. If you need to write "The End" to signal that the piece has concluded, then you have not adequately done your job as a writer. "The End" is an unnecessary construct; it’s redundant. If you have written a strong conclusion, the reader recognizes that when there’s no more writing on a page to be read, the piece has ended. So, do not end your piece by writing "The End."