When I write, some of the most common feedback I get, besides my ridiculous comma usage, is that much of the writing sounds awkward. It can be a few words, a sentence, or even a whole paragraph. This bad writing is confusing to read and the sentences “just don’t sound quite right.”
Common side effects of awkward writing include: dizziness after reading, increased heart rate due to confusion, and dry mouth due to constant re-reading.
Awkward writing is common, and I believe that it’s actually a good sign. Awkward writing means that you are writing and have begun to silence your inner critic.
6 Tips to Avoid and Fix Bad Writing
In writing, the awkward sentences, phrases, and words will come, but after days of editing and many writing lectures from Joe, I’ve developed a few tips to avoid the bad writing. Here are six tips to avoid and fix the inevitable awkward writing.
1. Read Out Loud
This is the first step to checking your piece for awkward writing: read it out loud. I wrote a post about this a few months ago, and it’s still your best bet to check for awkward writing.
When you read something out loud, you are able to catch awkward writing that you might have previously overlooked. Reading aloud reveals confusing word order that might cause your reader trouble when reading.
If you have to re-read your writing, your reader will have to, too. If your reader is forced to re-read sentences over and over again, it will interrupt the flow and distract your reader.
2. Shorten Your Sentences
One of the best ways to avoid awkward writing is to take out every unnecessary word, phrase, and sentence. As writers, we like to use words. But when we’re trying to explain something, less really is more.
Which sentence most clearly identifies the point?
When we make up reasons and explanations to avoid doing hard things, we are creating obstacles in the way of our success.
Excuses are one of success’ greatest enemies.
The first sentence is awkward and confusing, while the second sentence is clear, straight to the point, and less than half the length.
3. Be Specific
Often when our writing is awkward, it is because we are being vague.
Here’s a recent example from a book I’m working on:
We can never know the things that hold us back if we do not receive input from other people.
The sentence doesn’t tell us what is holding us back or whom we need input from. It is awkward and leaves the reader confused. My editor commented on the sentence, “What does that even mean?”
So let’s be specific. How’s this:
We are unable to see what circumstances hold us back unless we allow input from trusted mentors or friends.
The second example is specific and easier for readers to understand.
Fixing awkward sentences involves a lot of re-wording. Almost every sentence can be worded a hundred different ways, but as writers, our job is to find the best, yet simplest, wording.
When re-wording, avoid the passive voice and any repetitive themes. For example:
He was passed by the green car with a driver who held a cell phone in one hand, a sandwich in the other, and screamed as he flew by.
That sentence has a lot of information, is repetitive, and is written in the passive voice.
Let’s re-word it:
The driver of the green car, who screamed as he flew by him, had his cell phone in one hand and a sandwich in the other.
This second sentence is less awkward after some re-wording.
Awkward writing isn’t tight in flow and overall narrative of the piece. Tightening our writing is similar to polishing it. It’s meant to fix any leftover awkward writing in a second or third draft.
It is the difference between having a bunch of mediocre sentences and sentences that build upon each other to illustrate exactly what the author intends.
A great example of a tight writer is Stephen King. He does this by creating a build-up and flow in each sentence he writes. As he says in On Writing:
I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.’
Although I’m an optimist, sometimes, there’s just no hope for an awkward phrase. When you’ve stared at it for hours and tried re-writing it twelve times, it’s time to ask yourself, “Is this necessary?” If it’s not necessary, it might just be confusing.There is freedom in the delete button.
Over the last few weeks, these tips have helped me avoid and fix awkward writing all over the place. Do you have any tips to fix awkward writing? What experience do you have with awkward writing? Let us know in the comments below.