If you are a student who has ever made an appointment with me in the writing center you’re familiar with the following comments: “wordy,” “passive voice,” and “awkward.” If you haven’t made an appointment with me in the writing center you’re still probably familiar with this kind of feedback. If these words are prevalent in your paper after an editing session you obviously have a problem with style; but what is style? When an instructor, or peer, tells you to work on style they are implying you could make your sentences stronger, clearer, shorter, and more effective. Now before you feel singled out and self conscious, every writer struggles with this at some point. Everyone has thought to themselves at some point, “I know what I’m trying to say, but I can’t find the words to say it.” If this applies to you no fear, after reading this article you will know how to “tighten up” your paper and work on your “word choice.”
Before we get too deep into this topic, it’s vital to understand that style is subjective, meaning that everyone has their own perspective on how they view style. For example, passive voice is often widely accepted in the field of science, but that same passive voice is frowned upon in the literary world; the same principle applies to instructors. Most professors prefer that students be straight forward. Although the fact is a sentence can be “wordy” and still be grammatically correct. In the same way there are major stylistic differences between disciplines, each professor will have their own subjective preferences. With all that being said, I’ll discuss a few key elements that are valuable to every writer in improving their writing and the first steps in discovering your own style.
The first thing on the list is learning to say what you mean. I cannot speak for everyone, but I for one am guilty of trying to “sound” intelligent. If this applies to you, it’s important to learn that “sounding” intelligent doesn’t get you A’s; but making an intelligent point does. It’s often the case that when doing research, our textbooks and sources are writing in a complex and complicated manner. If you try to mimic this style of writing in an attempt to “sound” intelligent your voice and argument is often lost. When attempting this you may use words that are not familiar with or completely understand how to use, in doing this you may misuse the word, or worse, your instructor may read your passage and think you’re plagiarizing. Rather than mimicking style and using big words to impress your instructor, use authentic cohesive and concrete arguments instead. If your audience can’t follow your point then what is the point in making it? Remember communication and being understood is the most important element to an argument/essay so write as straight forward as possible.
Also, you must always use the appropriate tone. For example, in this blog post I’m using a very open and conversational tone, which is accepted. But if I was writing an academic research paper or critical analysis my tone would be much more formal. It is very easy to write the way we speak. We often feel like a chatty or friendly paper reads better, this may be the case but it also takes away from the paper. Most instructors will not take kindly to using the words “awesome” or “cool” being used in your thesis or to explain a topic. On the other hand, you also don’t have to write conservatively using short choppy sentences, which are straight to the point. Just keep in mind when writing, your word choice shouldn’t distract the reader or take away from the subject.
Now that we have talked about ideas you should keep in mind when writing, I also want to address common mistakes I see in the writing center every day and how you can fix them on your own, before or after the session. “Wordiness” is often related back to tone. Most writers are trying to write like they speak and the result of that is using fillers. Fillers can be single words like: that, really, very, and things. Or fillers can be phrases such as: considering the fact, in reference to, at the same time as. Filler words occur in two settings; the first being, when we have a thought and have a problem putting that thought into words. The second setting is when you are trying to add fluff to a paper. Although the first is understandable both need to be eliminated because when this happens filler/fluff can slow your reader down because of its redundancy and may force the reader to skim your paper, which is not good. Thus the appropriate strategy is to look back over your rough draft, once you have your thoughts on the page, and attempt to reword/restructure sentences so that you’re saying the same thing with fewer words. This will make your ideas more concrete and cohesive.
Another problem I see is “weak verbs” or “passive voice.” When you see this on your paper you probably have too much filler between your noun and verb, subject and predicate, or actor and action. When your verb doesn’t follow your noun closely, it’s easy for the reader to lose the sense of whose doing what. Once again, if the reader can’t follow your thoughts your argument gets significantly weaker. When reading back over your paper make sure the action of the actor is apparent and easily identified. You can accomplish this by restructuring/reordering your sentence. The University of North Carolina Greensboro’s Writing Center handout (https://www.uncg.edu/eng/writingcenter/handouts/STRONG_AND_WEAK_VERBS.pdf) gives a specific example of how you can identify and correct weak or passive verbs:
Revised Sentence: New art galleries and two theaters offering live performances have lured a slightly older crowd downtown.
One active verb instead of the two passive verbs in the original:
Original Sentence: A slightly older crowd has been lured downtown by new art galleries, and live performances are now offered at two theaters.
Given these points you are now capable of improving your writing style. If you find that this is the biggest problem in your writing try to focus on one aspect of your paper at a time or you may feel overwhelmed. If you attempt to discover your style on your own and you notice you’re making the same mistakes bring multiple papers to the writing center so your tutor can identify the chronic problem. The best way you can identify these problems on your own is to read your paper aloud, a technique I often use, as well as my clients. Your ear will naturally pick up on redundancies and problem areas. When you’re reading and you lose your train of thought or get lost mark that area and bring it in for consultation.