7 Ways To Fix The Most Common Writing Problems

November 21, 2021
Marvin Espino

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7 Ways To Fix The Most Common Writing Problems

What’s the difference between lame writing and powerful writing? You can think of so many factors. It can be on the verb, the sentence structure, the passive voice, the sprinkling of run-on sentences, typographical errors, rampant -ing forms, and so on.

Sure, you can spot better writing from worse ones. It’s easy to feel when an article sounds lame, pompous, incomprehensible, and complicated. Likewise, it’s much easier to know if an article is written well. It’s clear, coherent, imaginative, and you can’t help but finish it until the end.

But how do you steer clear from bad writing and replicate the better one? Skilled writers can pinpoint what needs improvement and translate the solutions into their work. But that’s not the case for everybody. Some just have no idea how good writing becomes good and bad becomes bad. For them, it’s a hide-and-seek game, more difficult than they used to play.

The good news is there are easy places that will tell you whether or not an article is well written. Places such as the introduction, the body, the conclusion, the transitions, and so on.

In this article, we’ll tell you where those places are and what’s wrong with them.

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1. Introduction without much care to the audience

An article is off to a bad start if the introduction is not in tune with the audience’s interest.

Take a look at this example:

Megalodon is the largest type of shark that has ever lived. The success of Megalodon’s existence for so many years has been attributed to their size and their ability to hunt larger prey. Without this capability, they could have been extinct much sooner.

Was it bad? Not really. But if the reader is someone who’s into sharks, they could have already known that information. Meaning that start is not a worthy introduction.

An introduction that knows its audience knows what information to write and what to leave out. In this case, it’s better to not state general information.

Imagine a species triple the size of the largest sharks today has been found patrolling our seas. You would be clutching your surfboard closer to your heart or perhaps your feet close to the land. The good news is that it’s dead. But for millions of years, this monstrous shark called Megalodon dominated the seven seas.

“The reader is thy God,” writes June Casagrande in her book “It Was The Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She argued that audience-focus writing breeds a better introduction.

When we figure out first who will read our content, we begin to write for their entertainment, approval, and attention. This process is what Casagrande calls the reader-serving writing, the opposite of the writer-serving writing. The former is where you know what to say best to your readers, so you get them hooked. The latter is where you write to impress, disregarding what’s essential to your readers.

In the world of writing, the reader is the judge. If you get them swayed on your beliefs and narratives, you win. But if they toss your book, article, email, and poem because their introduction sucks and their body just doesn’t make sense, you lose.

How to fix:

Before writing, define your readers. Make a list of their qualities, professional backgrounds, interests, skills, etc. Then, answer the ultimate question: why should they read your material? What’s in it for them?

2. Subject and verbs are far from each other

Take a look at this sentence:

The application to the Court of First Instance, although organized ineffectively and not making the proper legal conclusions for some of its major arguments, was nevertheless submitted by the law firm.

Compare it to this:

The law firm submitted its application to the Court of First Instance despite the document’s ineffective organization and improper legal conclusions in some of its major arguments.

In one reading, you’ll know which one is better. But how? By observing how close the verb is to its subject. So often, when a writer separates the subject and verb, they unintentionally obscure the action and the meaning. If you want to keep the suspense, write a few words that separate the subject and the verb. But as a general rule of clear writing, keep the two close together.

The defendant invoked the fifth amendment when asked in court about his involvement in the bloody murder of two teenage girls.

This example is proof. It’s easy to understand what the defendant did. The other words succeeding the verb are colorful details. But they don’t obscure the main thought.

Likewise, you can make the statement more challenging to read by writing words in the middle.

The defendant, when asked in court about his involvement in the bloody murder of two teenage girls, invoked the fifth amendment.

Notice how confusing who did what? Save the suspense for clarity. Write the verbs close to their subject.

How to fix:

Any type of writing can make sense when the subject is close to its verb. Try reading the leads of New York Times articles and count how often they use this style.

Note: it’s generally OK to separate the subject and the verb with non-restrictive clauses, called appositives. This sentence, for instance, “That boy, who wears a crimson baseball cap, studies creative writing.”

And it’s generally acceptable for suspense writers. “Annie, a low lying girl from the outskirts of New York and a regular at Church, was found to have killed her parents this afternoon.

But otherwise, and a general rule, keep the subject and the verb together.

3. Starting a sentence with grammar expletives

“There are” and “there is” are the most common grammar expletives. You see it everywhere. And it’s not inherently wrong. But without the right intention and left unchecked, these words can often dull the sentence construction.

Which is better: “There are boys playing in the field.” Or “Boys are playing in the field.”?

Not only is the latter shorter, but it’s also easier to understand.

But don’t confuse grammar expletives with the demonstrative pronoun “there” and “that.” “There lives the poorest of the poor” or “There is the city of love” are both absent of expletives. “There” is technically a demonstrative pronoun to the antecedent that appeared somewhere before the sentence. And in those two sentences, “there” acts as the pronoun subject.

On the other hand, grammar expletives are not acting as subjects, rather additional words that are placed in the sentence either to emphasize or create tense. But although grammatically right, expletives often prolong the main thought of the sentence. One rule of good writing is KISS (Keep It Short and Simple). And grammar expletives are those words you can cut out to achieve KISS.

Instead of writing “There were hundreds of paper documents in the office of the Vice President,” cut off the “there were” and start the sentence with the main subject. “Hundreds of paper documents pile up in the Vice President’s office.” The meaning stayed the same. But notice how the last one is cleaner and more concise. In short, expletives are unnecessary words that drag the action and the meaning of the sentence.

How to fix:

Next time you encounter expletives in your draft, try to rewrite the sentence with different versions. See which one delivers the meaning better with fewer words.

If you would like to stick to the expletives, make sure to use them with utter intention. Occasional use is fine, especially if you intend to add sentence variation. Otherwise, keep the grammar expletives away from your writing arsenal.

4. Monotonous sentence construction

It often goes without saying that good writing is full of varied sentence types. This is where your understanding of sentence patterns comes to play. Remember the simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences?

Make sure to spice up your writing by adding them all. A simple sentence such as “The boy lambasted the snake with a heavy stick” is a good way to grasp attention. But once on it, the reader will demand some variety. So get them hooked with a compound-complex sentence: “All of them went to the nearest well, and his friend, Tommy, a courageous fellow, tossed the dead vermin before they all alighted down the mountain carrying sacks of potatoes and plantains.”

This rule, which is to use different sentence lengths, has been well demonstrated by Gary Provost in his book “100 Ways to Improve Your Writing”:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.”

Then he fixes this monotonous construction with a paragraph consisting of six sentences of different lengths.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write Music.

How to fix:

While it’s a good idea to count the number of words, counting can be a tedious task. So if you’re writing lengthy pieces, try reading them aloud. Often, reading aloud gives us an idea of the sound of the sentences. When they sound alike, that’s when you shorten some sentences and lengthen others.

5. Overuse of adverbs

Adverbs are good modifiers of anything, be it nouns, adjectives, and even co-adverbs. Adverbs may be grammatically correct, but they’re not made equal. Some adverbs like adverbs of time are necessary to indicate when something happened.

But other adverbs, like some adverbs of manners, have been used so much that they lost their meaning and impact. Take, for example, words such as really, actually, and totally are evident in typical writing, even in colloquial speech. Hence, they don’t give additional details and should be cut off.

However, not all adverbs of manners are fluff words. For example, “When people love vicariously, everyone can live happily.” Both the adverbs vicariously and happily give a different meaning than when they’re not in the sentence.

Avoid only the adverbs that don’t tell much about the words they modify. For example, “He ran quickly to the finish line” is redundant. Running is already fast.

This is a good example of an adverb to avoid. The sample sentence is better if written, “He raced to the finish line.”

How to fix:

Walk slowly is different from just walk. Wait earnestly is not the same as “wait.” Adverbs of manner such as these carry a different meaning. So use only these types of adverbs. Better yet, write a completely different word. Instead of “talk quietly,” write “whisper.” “Saunter” might be better than “walk slowly.”

6. Nominals as subjects

Nominals are verbs or adjectives turned into a noun. For example, expansion, utilization, analysis, announcement, and commencement. They’re from verbs such as expand, utilize, analyze, announce, and commence. This process of turning word or word phrases to become nouns is called nominalization.

Nominalizations are not bad generally. But if left unchecked, they can creep into your writing like termites to a house. That’s why it’s vital to know when nominalizations are acceptable and when they’re not.

Here’s how nominalization is OK.

“The consultant shared the Google sheet she had prepared last week.”

“The illustration shows how the parts are assembled.”

Consultant and illustration are the nominals. It’s from the verbs “consult” and “illustrate.” And if you were to choose a different word, you would have to use several words. So nominals are good when referring to a common noun.

Nominalization is bad because it’s the recipe for bureaucratic construction. Those are sentences that are too difficult to understand, often under the guise of authority and vagueness.

“The experimentation is nothing but a perversion of rights.” Sentences like this lurk in the work of academicians and the legal profession. That’s why their write-ups are dull and dragging. It’s also a good example of nominalization. Experimentation and perversion are verbs turned into long nouns. The sentence is better written this way: “The study of the scientists pervades the rights of the indigenous people.”

How to fix:

Spot words ending in -ance, -ence, -ery, -ment, -ness, -sion, -son, -tion, and more. Then, replace them with an actual subject (not the nominal subject) and transform the nominal word into a verb or adjective. Some nominals don’t have the usual ending. So, pay attention to how wordy the sentence is. That may be because of certain nominals in the sentence.

To identify whether or not a word is nominalized, ask where the subject is. If the subject is not clear, then there’s probably nominalization that occurred. For instance, there’s no subject in “The acceptance of the position is warmly received.” Rewrite the sentence to “He received a warm welcome when he had accepted the position.”

7. Full of linking verbs, instead of active verbs

Linking verbs are not bad at all. But if the ratio is heavy on the linking verbs, that means you have been missing out on the power of dynamic verbs. Unlike linking verbs that link ideas, active verbs state action.

In the sentence “I will be there in two minutes,” the verb “will be” links the subject (I) to the predicate (there in two minutes). But in the following sentence, the verb (power-up) clearly states the action in this sentence: “Tech enterprises power up their branding with well designed visual assets like text and name-based logos and slogans.”

Verbs such as appear, become, grow, prove, remain, seem, and turn can act as linking verbs too. “He appears lonely” is of equal meaning to “He is lonely.” But appear can also be an active verb in “He appeared from nowhere.”

By omitting the linking verb in a sentence like “My son is a computer programmer.” and then turning it into “My son works as a computer programmer in a digital marketing company,” you made the sentence more concise and punchy.

How to fix

In your writing, write more dynamic verbs than linking ones. And if you had used the linking verb in some sentences, try to rewrite them, replacing the weak to-be verbs with active verbs. Rather than just stating what is, remember to say to what did something do.

Over To You

There’s really no shortcut to better writing than practice. “You become a writer by writing,” said Margaret Atwood, a famous dystopian writer. “So do it, do it more. Fail, fail better.”

Yet often, the best way to write better is to understand how some published, and seasoned writers do it right. This list, albeit not exhaustive, provides basic tips to improve and power up your writing. Try to master at least one and move on to the next.

How about you? What are your best strategies in tightening your prose?

Marvin Espino
Marvin Espino has been writing since high school. A background in journalism marked a career in reporting and freelance writing. He has written several articles on logo design, marketing, technology, and small businesses. Outside work, Marvin reads a lot and hoards well-written pieces for inspiration. And he sings and bakes goodies too.

About the Author

Marvin Espino
Marvin Espino has been writing since high school. A background in journalism marked a career in reporting and freelance writing. He has written several articles on logo design, marketing, technology, and small businesses. Outside work, Marvin reads a lot and hoards well-written pieces for inspiration. And he sings and bakes goodies too.