Writing Tips & Sample Edits
While there are exceptions to every rule, here are some common mistakes (and remedies) that apply to both business writing and creative writing.
Ambiguous language kills communication. Use words that yield specific images. “Green” is more memorable than “brightly colored.” Avoid wishy-washy terms that can be misinterpreted or ignored, or that add nothing to the meaning. How hot is “very hot?” How finished is “completely finished?” Some popular offenders:
|Situation||The situation in Liberia….||The war in Liberia….|
|Excellent||The committee gave the project an excellent appraisal.||The committee praised the project.|
|Many||I told him many times ….||I told him seven times….|
|Interesting||She is interesting.||She is captivating.|
|Certain||Certain companies don’t….||Small/large/rich/poor companies don’t….|
|Quite||The actress was quite beautiful.||The actress was beautiful.|
|Phenomenon||This is a phenomenon I haven’t seen before.||I haven’t seen this before.|
|Facility||He kept the food in a storage facility.||He kept the food in a storeroom/stockroom/refrigerator.|
|He was quite certain that the many guests at the opening ceremony of the new health-care facility had an excellent time despite the very hot weather.||He was certain the guests at the hospital opening enjoyed themselves despite the heat.|
Adverbs and (most) adjectives
As with the examples above, these should be replaced by active, image-rich language. If you need an adverb to modify a verb, then the verb itself is likely weak or commonplace. Search for a richer verb. If you’re using countless adjectives to describe nouns and feelings/states of mind, you’re missing a chance to use crisp, active language. You can turn dry exposition into a passage that engages the reader:
|They walked slowly.||They lumbered.|
|He said loudly.||He screamed.|
|The strong, wintry wind made him feel cold.||The wind blew right through him.|
|She had big, brown eyes that made her look like a gorgeous movie star.||He couldn’t help but stare at her movie-star eyes.|
The passive voice
The passive voice is spiritless, tedious and often a sign that the author lacks confidence or craft. You can spot the passive voice by scanning your sentences for the word “of” and variations of the phrase “to be” (“is,” “was,” were,” etc.). Such sentences can be recast into the active voice, which is image-rich and economic, saving words and speeding the pace of the work.
|The leader of the marching band was standing by a float when he was almost knocked into the float by one of the horses, which had been spooked by the crowd.||A spooked horse nearly crushed the band leader against a float.
|It was nine o’clock when the patrol car from the sheriff’s department was seen slowing to a stop outside the motel where Jack was staying.||The patrol car pulled up outside Jack’s motel at nine o’clock.|
Intrusive dialogue tags
Use simple dialogue tags. Resist the temptation to describe the way characters deliver their dialogue. “He said” or “John said” are invisible, unobtrusive ways of identifying the speaker. “He said angrily” pulls the reader out of story while the author provides a weak explanation. If the dialogue itself doesn’t show character or provide telling information, no amount of description will help it. Sentence tags to avoid include almost all adverbs (. . . he said quickly/nicely/loudly/softly/etc.) and highfalutin synonyms for “he said,” which distract the reader (. . . he intoned/hissed/interjected/ejaculated etc.).
Don’t worry about clichés while composing a first draft, but be sure to excise them during revision. In fiction, keep some clichés if you can put a unique spin on them.
|The room felt a little like home sweet home, though with a charm that felt manufactured.||The room didn’t feel like home sweet home — more like home saccharine home.|
Show but don’t tell. Conflict and story development should play out before the reader’s eyes, not be “told” by the narrator. Telling (long passages of exposition without real-time dialogue or conflict) robs the reader of the feeling of discovery. Readers want to experience the story as it happens, preferably through a character’s eyes.
In fiction, think of plot in terms of conflict
This suggestion comes last because it applies to structure and can’t be illuminated through brief examples. All writing needs a hook to win the reader’s attention; it also needs continued conflict and tension to maintain that interest. In outlining fiction, put your planned story’s earliest moments of conflict right at the beginning. Avoid static scenes and scenes with dialogue that is “about” something. Spare the reader exhaustively described settings and all mannered of tension “build up.” Get to the good stuff right away and trust that you will be able to sustain tension by adding even better stuff later, when the heat of composition gives rise to new and better ideas.
Sample Edit #1: A magazine advertorial by a Western brokerage house planning to enter Poland
The Currency Option
The Best F/X Rate Risk Security
Company managers operating in a market economy at a time when Poland is rapidly opening up to the world should be aware of the growing number of associated risks. The exchange rate risk is a serious threat which can influence the financial results of a company conducting foreign operations. Loans and contracts expressed in a foreign currency also bear a significant degree of risk. With substantial f/x rate fluctuations, the company should take steps towards minimizing that risk. Until recently, the only instrument protecting Polish businesses from the f/x rate associated risk were forward transactions.
At present, companies can take advantage of a number of other products offered on the derivative instrument market, among them the currency option. Banks offer currency options to protect companies from the adverse results of f/x rate fluctuations. Call type options protect the company from the consequences of a growing currency price, while pur type options safeguard it from a drop in f/x rates in a given currency. What makes the currency option a very convenient protective instrument is that the purchaser has the right but not the obligation to apply it. The option is a type of an insurance policy for the owner who can choose to use it under specific circumstances. In return for the security, the purchaser pays a premium to the option issuer which accounts for option costs. There are two types of currency options – exchange-traded and over the counter (OTC) options. Exchange-traded options are offered as standardized contracts with a set nominal value and execution date. Their prices are set on the stock exchange on a daily basis. OTC options are adjusted to individual customer needs (option value, execution date, currency, possibility of negotiating the price of executing the option). At present, commercial banks in Poland offer the OTC option only. Exchange-traded options can be expected to enter the domestic market as soon as a forward stock exchange dealing in derivative instruments is founded in Poland.
The Best Defense Against Risk
Businesses in Poland’s nascent market economy have to keep pace with the risks that come with market liberalization. Foreign exchange rate risk (f/x risk) is important to cross-border traders and companies who have foreign-currency-denominated loans and contracts. Rates can fluctuate wildly, so companies have to minimize risk wherever they can.
Until recently, forward transactions were the only thing protecting Polish businesses from f/x risk. Today, the derivatives market offers other products, including currency options. Banks offer currency options to protect companies from f/x rate fluctuations. Call options safeguard against growing currency prices, while put options shield companies from decreases in f/x rates.
The currency option is convenient. Purchasers have the right – but not the obligation – to exercise it. It functions as an insurance policy for holders, who can use it if and when circumstances are to their liking. In return for the security, purchasers pay the option issuers a premium. There are two types of currency options: exchange-traded and over the counter (OTC). Exchange-traded options are offered as standardized contracts with set nominal values and execution dates. Their prices are set on the stock exchange daily. OTC options are adjusted to suit individual customers’ needs (in terms of option value, execution date, currency, and the possibility to negotiate an execution price). For now, only commercial banks offer OTC options in Poland, though the Warsaw Stock Exchange is developing a forward derivatives exchange.
Sample Edit #2: The opening chapter of a juvenile fiction novel
“Okay,” he said menacingly. “Then I suppose we had better go through this wallet and see if you did take my money.”
“But I didn’t!” I exclaimed. “I would never do that! I’m not that kind of person!”
I can not believe he would do that. His name was Jonathan Meyers, and he had big hands and a long scar on his face like a gangster. I had been tormented by him for many years. He was the biggest boy back in grammar school and he was the biggest boy now in the eighth grade. He was always asking me for money to keep him from beating me up. If I did not have any money, he would accuse me of stealing from him. He would always find some way to get money from me. I hated him.
We were outside on the basketball court. The bright sun was almost setting. Jonathan had several friends with him and they were almost as big as he was. Imagine how I felt. I was barely a hundred and thirty pounds and I was surrounding by these very big, mean-looking guys. I was afraid as I had never been afraid before. It was hard for me to move a muscle.
Jonathan’s long fingers went through my wallet. In the end, what he found was two five dollar bills and a library card. He took out the money.
“I’ll take these,” he smiled.
“No!” I cried out angrily. “You cannot do that!”
“Oh yes I can,” he interjected.
“But my mother gave me that money! I did not take it from you or from any one else. My mother gave it to me”, I said.
“Your mother? You are a mama’s boy. Is that what you are saying?” he said as if joking. “Are you saying you are a mama’s boy?”
Then they all started to say it. “Mama’s boy! Mama’s boy! Mama’s boy!” they laughed. It seemed to go on forever. “Mama’s boy!” they repeated over and over.
I am not a brave person by nature. I do not like to fight other people and I never liked to see other kids fight in the schoolyard. I was always one the meekest kids around and I did not think that there was anything wrong with that, because that’s the way I was raised. My father used to tell me that the only people in the world who he hated were those people who were mean or violent. So imagine my astonishment now, when all of these goons were surrounding me and chanting mama’s boy at me, when I surprised them and me and everyone who heard about it later by punching Jonathan right in the nose!
Turn the other cheek was what I always thought. Do not fall so low as to resort to violence. However, I could not think rationally at this particular moment. Believe me when I say that I punched Jonathan without wanting to punch him even though someone might argue that he deserved it. It was almost as if I did not have a choice. I was acting before thinking. Afterall, I really hate violence. I do believe in Turn the other cheek.
Moreover, while I did not really plan to hit him, I also did not plan to run away from all these boys, but that is precisely what I did. All of Jonathan’s friends just stood there, shocked, while I ran. Jonathan touched his nose as if he was curious, not hurt by my punch. Indeed, he was so tough that it took more than me to hurt him. Hitting him was not wise, and I knew that, so maybe that is why I was now running.
Where was I running? I do not know. I headed for the doors to the school, but by the time I got there I found out they were all closed. Afterall, school had been out for almost two hours now. I doubted there was even a janitor still around. This was a mistake.
I was starting to calm down a little. It didn’t look like they would get me. Then all of a sudden they were chasing me. They quickly had me cornered like an animal. Jonathan walked up in front of them all as they circled me.
“You are going to pay for that,” he said angrily. “Nobody hits me.”
I looked at all of them. Some of them were smiling. Some of them looked as angry as Jonathan. They wanted to see someone beat up and it did not really matter whether that someone was me or someone else. I thought of turn the other cheek again. Believe it or not, I felt bad for striking him. It was not that I was a good person or a pacifist or anything. It was just that I felt bad. Some times you feel bad without knowing why. It is kind of like when you say something sharp and cutting to someone and everyone laughs because you are funny, but you feel bad about hurting this person. I could not help it.
“I am sorry,” I said with meekness. “I did not mean to hit you. I just did it.”
“Sorry,” Jonathan said, imitating my timid voice. “I will bet you’re sorry. But not as sorry as you are going to be.”
He came closer to me while the others stood back. He turned both hands into fists, slowly closing the fingers into his palms, and I was very scared of him but believe it or not still I felt bad for hitting him. It was almost as if I now felt that I deserved to be beat up.
So I couldn’t believe it when I hit him a second time. Something within me forced me to do it. I did not even feel myself do it, but I most certainly did it.
And this time he fell down onto his knees. He did not hold his nose as he did the last time. He simply fell down and looked up at me as if he was terribly dazed and couldn’t say anything.
His friends all looked at him for a while and then I noticed that they were all looking at me again, but not really at me, but at my hand, which was still a fist down at my side. They began to walk backwards. It was not long before they were far away from me and they stopped looking at me and turned around and walked quickly back away from the school. They looked like they were afraid of me, seeing Jonathan kneeling there on the ground before me like maybe he was praying to me.
For a long time I did not know what to do. Now I did not feel especially good or bad and I did not hear turn the other cheek in my mind or anything else. I felt kind of like this was a big science experiment and Jonathan and I were the subjects of the experiment.
“Are you okay?” I ventured tentatively.
He did not say anything. He reached into his pocket and took out the ten dollars. When he gave them to me he looked afraid that I was going to strike him again. I took the money. I did not know how I felt right now. I guess I felt sorry for him.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Maybe they were right. Maybe I was a mama’s boy afterall.
“Okay,” Jonathan said, “if you didn’t steal my money, then you won’t mind if I go through your wallet.”
“But I didn’t take it,” I said. “I’m not a thief. You’re just looking for an excuse to–”
“Yeah, sure I am.”
He dipped a hand into my wallet. I found myself staring at the railway-track scar on his cheek. He wore the old wound proudly, like a gangster. I wondered who had given it to him. Not many kids in the eighth grade looked like Scarface, and not many had four other bullies to follow them around and back them up while they shook down smaller kids. Jonathan’s gang flanked him, two on each side of the leader, their faces dark in the evening shadows cast by the courtside trees.
I was a hundred and thirty pounds and feeling smaller with each passing second.
Jonathan found something to make him happy: two five-dollar bills.
“I’ll take these,” he said, plucking the money from the wallet.
“You can’t do that,” I said.
“My mother gave me that money. I didn’t steal it from you or from anyone else.”
“Your mother?” he said. “Your mother? Let me get this straight. You’re saying you’re a mama’s boy, is that it? You’re a mama’s boy?”
One by one they began to call me a mama’s boy. Then the insult evolved into a chant: “Mama’s boy, mama’s boy, mama’s boy. . . .” It went on forever. “Mama’s boy. . . .”
I wasn’t brave. I had grown up both fearing and loathing violence. I’d learned the aversion from my father, who was fond of saying that the only people in this world who deserved to be hated were those who were cruel or violent. That made sense to me, especially while Jonathan and his goons surrounded me and chanted “Mama’s boy.” I hated these guys, but was too weak to stop them.
So why did I then step forward and punch Jonathan in the nose?
Turn the other cheek. That was the saying. But all popular wisdom was hollow given that my mind had pretty much closed down. I punched Jonathan like a machine following its programming instructions. It wasn’t a matter of choice.
Nor was running away. Acting without thinking, I bolted, leaving Jonathan and his stunned friends in the middle of the school’s basketball court. Looking back and stumbling, I saw Jonathan massage his nose. He looked curious, not hurt. It took more than me to hurt him.
I stopped running at the school foyer entrance and yanked at all three door handles. They didn’t budge. School had been out for two hours. I cupped my hands to the slatted glass and looked inside. Nothing, not even a solitary janitor pushing a pail down the hall.
I glanced back at the basketball court. Jonathan and his gang were now charging toward me. I dodged left, made a bid for the parking lot, but soon they cornered me against a brick wall and formed a semicircle, cutting off all escape routes. Jonathan stepped forward.
“You’re gonna pay for that,” he said. “Nobody hits me.”
My mouth felt frozen. Two of Jonathan’s goons were smiling, eager to see a beating. The two others followed Jonathan’s lead and scowled at me. In a strange way, this was nothing personal. If it wasn’t me standing here in terror, it would be some other kid. The words “turn the other cheek” flashed in my mind again, and again I felt a twinge of guilt for having punched Jonathan. Or maybe it wasn’t guilt. Maybe “depression” was the word. Sometimes you feel bad without knowing why. It’s like when you say something cutting to someone and everyone laughs because you’re such a wit – yet you feel bad about having hurt the person.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered. “I didn’t mean to hit you. I just did it.”
“You’re sorry,” Jonathan said. “I’ll bet you’re sorry.”
He advanced on me. His hands – his fists – came within striking range. I trembled. I sought words that wouldn’t come. A part of me felt maybe I deserved to be beaten up.
Then everything happened either too quickly or too slowly. My mind shut down, became lost in some faraway ether while the rest of the world marched on. Finally the trilling of a bird brought me back to the present, and Jonathan was kneeling on the pavement, looking up at me with empty eyes. I’d hit him again.
His friends gaped at him. Then, one by one, they turned their gazes on me and saw something they hadn’t seen before — something I hadn’t seen before. Finally they inched backwards in slow-motion, watching me closely as they went. When they were twenty or so yards away, they turned and fled toward the gates.
Jonathan, meanwhile, still looked as if he were praying.
What could I say now? What could I do? The gut feeling of depression was gone. All feeling was gone. This was a science experiment, and Jonathan and I were the subjects. Someone else would know what it meant.
“Are you okay?” I finally said.
He didn’t answer. He reached into his pocket, retrieved the ten dollars, and held the bills out while shivering with fear.
I accepted the money.
“I’m sorry,” I said, and with the short apology the clouds in my mind parted. Now I felt terrible for him, worried about how he would handle this tomorrow. I couldn’t look him in the eyes, and I couldn’t say anything that would have any meaning. I stared at my feet and hid my hands in my pockets.
Maybe he was right. Maybe I was a mama’s boy after all.