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.” How can I fix it to make my writing better? Let's take a look.
Writing skill sometimes comes naturally, but far more often, it is the product of hard work, feedback, and revision. Beginner writers who avoid revision or feedback are destined to be stuck in poor sentence structure, unclear paragraphs, or grammar errors until they commit to change.
The first thing to realize is that you aren't alone. bad writing does not mean you are a bad writer—it means you are still in revision. Awkward writing is common, and I believe that it's actually a good sign. Awkward writing means that you arewriting and have begun to silence your inner critic.
6 Tips to Fix Bad Writing
As I've worked to develop a working writing style, it's taken me a lot of awkward sentences, phrases, and words, but after editing (and many writing lectures from Joe), I've developed a few tips to avoid the bad writing. Here are six tips that helped make my writing better (hopefully they help you, too!).
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 while back, and it's still your best bet to check for awkward writing.
When you read something out loud, you catch common errors. When you read silently, your brain skips over errors, repeated words, and odd phrasing. Reading aloud reveals confusing word order that might cause your reader trouble.
How do you know if something is awkward? When you have to stop to reread. Don't make the mistake of thinking, “Oh, I just misread that…” no. If you have to stop and restart a sentence, it means something disrupted the flow of the grammar that your brain expected.
If you have to re-read your writing, your reader will have to, too. It interrupts the flow and distracts your reader.
Bonus tip: if you need help developing an ear for language that will translate into stronger writing skills, practice reading all kinds of writing aloud. Your favorite authors in your genre, short stories, and the most overlooked ear training: poetry.
2. Shorten Your Sentences
The next way 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 is clearer?
When we make up reasons and explanations to avoid doing hard things, we are creating obstacles in the way of our success.
Excuses are enemies to our success.
The first sentence is awkward and confusing, while the second sentence is clear, straight to the point, and less than half the length.
You can also use a writing app like Hemingway to increase readability and identify places where your sentences might be too long and rambling.
And while Jane Austen may have written grammatically correct, beautiful sentences that stretched for entire pages, you'll likely find that readers today don't have much patience for it. Know what your genre's audience expects and deliver.
3. Be Specific
Often when our writing is awkward, it's 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 past circumstances hold us back unless we allow input from trusted mentors or friends.
The second example is more 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 words or 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 had his cell phone in one hand and a sandwich in the other as he flew by screaming.
This second sentence is now in active voice and less awkward after some re-wording.
The way you build your sentences will depend largely on your writing style and genre, but make sure they remain clear and effective for the pace and tone of the piece of writing.
5. Tighten Bad Writing
Awkward writing meanders without purpose. Sometimes it's plagued with strings of verbs stacked on top of each other, other times it's repetitious. This isn't something you can do well in a first draft: you tighten and polish in the second or third pass.
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.’
For example, here's a sentence that's stacking verb phrases unnecessarily:
In order to find out the suspects who might have committed the crime, Detective Harriday was planning on going to try to find and to search the town hall records for buyers interested in the property.
To tighten, ask yourself WHO is DOING what? And get that subject verb combo together.
Revised: Detective Harriday searched the town hall records for interested buyers.
Notice how the long verb strong, “was planning on going to try to find and to search” could really be one word: searched. That's tightening your writing, and verbs are a great place to begin.
Check out our new post on strong verbs here to help!
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, you don't need it.
There is freedom in the delete button. Hemingway famously took out sentences in his drafts. He wanted his readers to feel the space, and he trusted them to fill in the blanks. It kept him from overwriting.
Make your writing better with these tips
Over the last few weeks, these tips have helped me fix my own bad writing, and I'm able to share it with clients now too.
Do you have any tips to fix bad writing? Let us know your most helpful tip in the comments below.