Seven Tips for Improving Your Writing Style

  1. Put the main topic or idea of your sentence in the grammatical subject position, and follow it with a strong verb. Doing so will help your reader figure out what you're talking about more quickly. Plus, your writing will be clearer and more concise.
    A-1. Negative: Our policy to extend credit to first-time customers is to grant them immediate credit if they can provide business references.

    A-2. Positive: First-time customers can receive immediate credit by providing business references.
    Note that this example also gets rid of wordy infinitives (to extend, to grant).

    B-1. Negative: A current topic of discussion in the company is robotics, which has created a lot of controversy and apprehension among workers.

    B-2. Positive: The prospect of robots replacing workers has fostered controversy and apprehension throughout the company.
    Note that this revision also gets rid of preposition overloading (the of and in prepositional phrases) and the weak which clause.

  2. Structure information from general to specific to avoid taxing your readers' short-term memory.
    A-1. Negative: Education, experience, creativity, and ambition are the traits that managers look for in their prospective employees.

    A-2. Positive: The traits that managers most often look for in their employees are....

    B-1. Negative: Reducing our review procedure from three tiers to two tiers and placing more responsibility upon the writers rather than the readers can improve the quality and timeliness of our reports.

    B-2. Positive: We can improve the quality and timeliness of our reports by....

  3. Keep your subjects and verbs near each other. (Again, it's a matter of easing comprehension for your readers.)
    A-1. Negative: The committee, despite a reduction in its membership, has, due to its hard effort, completed its work ahead of schedule.
    Here, even the verb isn't together.

    A-2. Positive: Despite a reduction in its membership, the committee has completed its work ahead of schedule because of its hard work.
    (Or, Because of its hard work, the committee has completed its work ahead of schedule, despite....)

  4. Put similar ideas in similar grammatical form (parallel structure).
    A-1. Negative: The report is incomplete, not accurate, and is extremely difficult to read.

    A-2. Positive: The report is incomplete, inaccurate, and unclear.

    B-1. Negative: Discussion at the meeting focused on three issues: (1) new EPA regulations and how they affect us, (2) making sure that field engineers are aware of and are following these regulations, and (3) how to assure compliance.

    B-2. Positive: The meeting focused on three issues: (1) what the new EPA regulations are and how they affect us, (2) how to ensure that field engineers are aware of and following these regulations, and (3) how to assure quality controls.
    (Or, ...(1) the new EPA regulations and their implications for us, (2) engineers' awareness of and compliance with the regulations, and (3) quality control assurance.)
    Note that the third phrase may be unnecessary if compliance and quality control assurance refer to the same thing. Avoiding or eliminating redundancy is another way to improve your writing style.

  5. In general, use the active voice. (Active voice means that you put the agent of the action in the subject position of the sentence. Active voice is more direct and concise than passive voice.)
    A-1. Passive: The proposal to build a health club on company grounds was vetoed by the vice president.

    A-2. Passive: The proposal to build a health club on company grounds was vetoed.
    Note that the agent of the action is missing entirely. In some situations (bad news, political CYAing), the agent is deliberately avoided; (e.g., The Rose law firm files were expunged. [But by whom?]) In other situations--especially scientific, technical reports or manuals, it doesn't matter who the agent is; (e.g., The sample is then loaded into a tray and placed in the distillation unit.)

    A-3. Active: The vice president vetoed the proposal to build a health club on company grounds.

    B-1. Passive: After the data is entered into the program by the user, reports can be generated by the crosslink command.
    Here there are two passive clauses. The latter clause also illustrates that, contrary to common misconception, the agent of the action does not have to be human.

    B-2. Active: After the user enters the data into the program, the crosslink command generates the reports.
    Just keep in mind this structure: Who or What does what.

  6. Avoid preposition overloading.
    A-1. Negative: The highlights of the report on the status of the project were submitted to the managers of our three regional offices in the midwest.
    (Six prepositional phrases.)

    A-2. Positive: Highlights of the project status were submitted to our three midwest regional office managers.
    (Two prepositional phrases.)
    Tip: Don't condense your writing so much that it becomes too dense and impacted; (e.g.,
    March 3 status report results reported March 10 were discussed.) The point is not to avoid prepositional phrases entirely, just to avoid overloading a sentence with them.

    B-1. Negative: One way to solve the problem in our country of lawyers who are unethical is to improve the quality of courses at our law schools.

    B-2. Positive: Our country will have more ethical lawyers when law schools provide better courses.

  7. Get rid of unnecessary it, there, who, which, and that clauses.
    A-1. Negative: There are two good reasons that I can think of for why Peter Limperis, who is my nephew, will make a fine lawyer.

    A-2. Positive: My nephew, Peter Limperis, will make a fine lawyer for two reasons.
    Also note that opinions can be simply stated; normally you don't need leaders like I think that..., or It is my opinion that....

    B-1. Negative: It is a fact that mercy, which is a quality, should not be strained, but that it should drop from heaven, in the same manner as a gentle rain would.

    B-2. Positive: The quality of mercy is not strain'd, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven (Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 4.1.184-85).