6 Tips To Fix Bad Writing

by Kellie McGann | 41 comments

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.

4. Re-Word

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! 

6. Delete

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.


Take fifteen minutes and look at an old piece and search for any awkward writing. Try fixing it with one of the tips above and share it in the Pro Practice Workshop here!

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Kellie McGann is the founder of Write a Better Book. She partners with leaders to help tell their stories in book form.

On the weekends, she writes poetry and prose.

She contributes to The Write Practice every other Wednesday.


  1. Mirel

    Ha! I agree with every word, yet every time I rewrite, I seem to add about 20%! It’s not that your tips are not valid: every one is important and useful, however, not every rewritten story will end up 10% less…

    Not that my writing doesn’t need pruning, it’s just that when I get the story down, I tend to write a lot of the action and dialog and omit a lot of details (setting, description, etc). When I rewrite, I go over awkward wording, tighten sentences, add sentences to improve the flow AND fill in the missing settings and description. It always ends up clearer, richer, and longer.

    Bottom line: we each write differently and should make the effort to learn our own writing style and how to work with it in rewrites.

    Oh, and one more point that I look for in rewrites: filtering phrases. e.g. “I saw him walk the dog every evening” would be stronger as “He walked the dog every evening.” If you want to make a point of the character seeing him do it can add, something like “drawing me to the window to watch him as he passed.” Loads of words/phrases like that that I’m constantly pruning.

    • Kellie McGann

      I like that advice! It makes our writing a lot stronger! Thanks for sharing!

    • Mirel


  2. Informal Guides

    Reading out loud has really improved my writing. nice post.

    • Kellie McGann

      Reading out loud is the greatest! Glad you liked the post!

  3. seth_barnes

    Good tips, Kellie!

    • Kellie McGann

      Thanks Seth! You’ve definitely helped me figure out some of these tips! 🙂

  4. Lilian Gardner

    An excellent article, Kellie.
    I believe that reading out loud will catch mistakes and awkard writing. I have learned to cut out useless words, and shorten sentences, which definitely improve my manuscript. At times I feel as if my writing is too simple. Any tips on how to make it more sophisticated or classy without using ‘flowery’ adjectives?
    Thanks so much.

    • 709writer

      Reading out loud can definitely help you identify if something doesn’t sound quite right.

      Sometimes writing simple is a good thing, because it isn’t bogged down by flowery adjectives, like you mentioned. I really admire writers who are direct and clear with their words. But if you do want to make it more sophisticated or classy, maybe try reading some of your favorite authors and see how they do it, and if you like it, you could take bits and pieces of their styles to create your own. I’d love to read some of your work some time. : )

    • Parker

      I totally agree that reading out loud helps. I am also an avid users of flowery adjectives and it is a hamper to the telling of a story. I get too caught up in description, making sure the readers sees, that I am causing the reader to oversee one scene, but not really see the big picture. How can I stop this?

    • Joan Harris

      I often find myself changing/tweaking words when I read my work aloud; that is my first clue. Most of the bestsellers I’ve read don’t use challenging language (words you have to go look up in the dictionary). Sophisticated prose is overrated, just keep the story moving. One of my instructors told us you can’t overuse the word “said” in dialogue, apparently other more colorful verbs distract the reader.

    • Davidh Digman

      I have heard the word ‘said’ being described as an ‘invisible word’ in that it is completely unobtrusive yet helps a story along.

  5. Aderyn Wood

    Great tips! And I’m glad I’m not the only writer out there with “ridiculous comma usage” 🙂

    • Debra johnson

      I might want to check with a doctor for breathing problems, cuz I have commas in everything. hehe

    • Kellie McGann

      Debra, yeah, might want to get that checked. What would we do without our beloved commas though?

    • Debra johnson

      huff and puff and have a lot of run on sentences and and and and *bends over gasping for breath*

    • Kellie McGann

      Haha, you are not alone. It can get out of control. I just love commas! 🙂

  6. sherpeace

    All of these are excellent advice! Thank you! 😉 <3

    It's very important to delete any writing that is not necessary to the story! If you hate "killing your babies," as I believe Hemingway called it, save them in a file for a future piece.
    Sherrie Miranda's historically based, coming of age, Adventure novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador” is about an American girl in war-torn El Salvador:
    Her husband made a video for her novel. He wrote the song too:

  7. LaCresha Lawson

    My kids get confused because of all the grammar rules. Me, too! I try to teach us that simple sentences are best. I like commas. I hope I am using them correctly.

    • Kellie McGann

      I love commas. Commas, commas, and more commas. My editor loves it too 😉 Keeps them in business.

  8. Summer@PrettyFatRebellion

    Great post! These tips are really helpful as I continue to refine my writing for my new blog and my ongoing novel writing. Thanks for sharing!

    • Kellie McGann

      Glad the post helped! I still have to remind myself of these every day! 🙂

  9. WritingBoy

    ‘The Elements of Style’ by Will Strunk appeared in 1935. Regrettably, every computer owner appears determined to re-invent the wheel.

    Omit needless words.
    Make every word tell.
    Obey the rules.

    • Kellie McGann

      That’s great. I’ll have to check that out! It seems so simple, but I find I need to be reminded constantly in order to remember!

  10. dduggerbiocepts

    Looking at your title, I first wondered which “six tips to avoid”?

    • Kellie McGann

      Good point! I can see how you could read it that way. Ahh, always so much to learn 🙂

  11. felicia_d

    Thanks, Kellie! I needed this today, as I am the Queen of the run-on, never ending sentence! LOL!

    • Kellie McGann

      Felicia, I hear you. I am learning this lesson the hard way! I like my words and often want to keep them all! My editor keeps yelling at me though. 😉

  12. Christine

    I do a lot of rewording and especially eliminating passive voice. But I must be wordy because in Point #2 I find the first sentence says something the shorter second one doesn’t. I find it an interesting thought that excuses actually put obstacles in the way of success.
    Or how about a colloquial version:
    When we wriggle out of doing hard things, we’re actually piling rocks on our path to success.

    When it comes to being specific, and for the sake of clarity, avoid It-itis. For example:
    If it’s not necessary and plain confusing, it’s okay to delete it.
    In your little quote we’re all on the same page as to what you’re referring to, but in some books I’ve seen a lot of its wreaking havoc with clarity.

  13. Jason Bougger

    Shorten sentences, tighten, re-word…all great advice. I try to replace adjectives with a more descriptive verbs on the first round of edits as well.

    • Kellie McGann

      Jason, that’s good advice! I’ll try that next time! Glad the advice resonated with you!

  14. Terence Verma

    I try and avoid awkward writing, by continuously correcting (read fixing) as I go along. The real danger there is the breaks in the flow of thoughts. Your 6 tips are a far better alternative. Thanks

    • Parker

      I too am constantly rewriting and rewriting. I am never satisfied with a sentence. I am constantly asking myself, “Did I tell too much and not leave enough to the reader’s imagination?” So in comes the overwhelming flowery adjectives and with the constant rewriting, I lose my flow and it gets harder to connect scene to scene until finally, I have to start all over and then basically almost end up with what I started it. Sometimes I feel like a hamster traveling on his wheel. Do you think another pair of eyes would help me get off this viscous cycle and help advance my writing?

    • Terence Verma

      Parker, that’s the bane of a perfectionist…a tendency to overthink things. If you keep questioning your thoughts as you write, they will hold you to an answer, thus creating breaks in your writing. The fact that you commenced writing shows that you are convinced about what you want to write. So, believe in your self and let the thoughts flow.

    • Parker

      Thanks, words of encouragement are always needed and much appreciated.

  15. DiyaSaini

    All my writings, old or new, are made to go through an axe. They are filtered & re-filtered often with the way you write it too. The struggle with words, phrases, commas, length is a never ending end. This is something, even if ever, claim yourself to be the best, will end up perfecting through. Reading your article, was a check up list, If following the same pattern though. Each one of us, bestowed with weak spots. I find myself often stuck in the rut of long sentences & similar words. That does not mean, I’m a scorer on other fronts.

    A regular submitter on your site, offers everyday the privilege of De-Awkwardifying. The momentum has to go on, even if you know, you are far from being right….

  16. Dan de Angeli

    All very true….especially about 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%

    • Kellie McGann

      Dan, yes! I’m working on a second draft now and it’s partially painful cutting it down, but so necessary.

  17. Adrian Tannock

    This is brilliant, especially: there is freedom in the delete button! I hunt out redundant modifiers such as ‘final outcome’ or ‘important essentials’. This always improves my writing.

    Thanks for the article, Kellie – sharing.

  18. Chloee

    I’m focusing on finishing a short story that surrounds around a young teenage girl who trying to cope with being diagnosed as depressed. After some more rewriting here it is.

    I had just turned sixteen, the year of driver license, college campus tours, and the peak of teenage angst, but the typical path to that was halted when my school’s guidance counselor requested for my mom and dad to to be brought in for what she described as a “heart to heart” confrontation. She wanted to discuss about my lack of socializing in school and the dark “troubling” poetry I had turned in for English class, previous weeks before. So as we all sat in the cramped off white office, crowded with cheap knick knacks and positivity posters you only ever see hanging up on a cubicle wall, she discussed that my best option for mental improvement would be enlisting the knowledge of a professional therapist since she feared I was at risk for being diagnosed as depressed, which would explain my anti-social behavior and troubling writing, because Lord knows you have to have an explanation to everything in life.

    That’s how I found myself sitting, in the crappy conference room of the local library, on a cheap metal folding chair, listening half heartedly, to the supposedly uplifting speech spewing out of the leader of this so called group. Tom. We had all heard the speech at least a dozen times from Tom. After discovering in a pamphlet, while waiting in his local Wallgreens physician’s office for his annual flu shot, that 30.7 percent of Americans lived with a mental illness. I’m sure he also learned from the pamphlet almost half of Americans don’t get the needed amount of Vitamin D.

    Sprinkle in some courageous words and throw in a couple overused quotes from a Hallmark card and you basically got the whole speech. Tom stated many, many, many times before, that he wanted to be a “guidance angel” for those diagnosed and thus Youth Mental Awareness or Y.M.A was formed. Y.M.A is for people thirteen to nineteen to talk about their illness.

    I mainly showed up for the food.

    This is how it went every Thursday night for the past six months, I would make up some weak excuses like a stomach ache, which would never work and then I would reluctantly drive to the Library and for the next hour and a half, listen to depressing stories from people I don’t know. Thus letting me let go of any frustration about my illness and letting the positivity engulf me.

    It’s a real lifesaver.

    The meeting goes like this, We introduce ourselves by stating our names, age, and illness. I usually go first since we start youngest to oldest, so I stand up, fiddling with my sleeves and start talking “Spencer, sixteen, depression.” Tom would try to coax me into talking a little bit more which I will answer with “I’ll pass” and then sit down again which by now, I’m greeted by a feeble round of applause and we continue going around till everyone has introduced themselves.

    So in our group we have twelve people, that means if you do the math correctly, four depressions (one of those being me) four anxiety, three bipolar, and finally, four OCD. That probably sounds harsh, but it’s true, and the truth hurts, like a mother. Then after listening to someone’s story about their trials they passed or struggles they overcame, we all grip each others hand to recite the Y.M.A motto which is “United through others, we are stronger than those who are not.” Long, stupid, and cliche. Very fitting. It’s also very hard to focus on reciting it when a stranger’s sweaty hands are clutching yours. After that, I’m finally granted my rightly given freedom and the meeting disperses.

    I walk through the double sided exit doors and strolled out to my car. I fumbled for my car keys while I called mom, finally starting the engine when she picks up on the third ring. “Hey mom” “Hey Honey, how was your meeting?” I buckled my seat belt and switch on the radio. “Same old same old, I just wanted to let you know I’m leaving now so I’ll be home in ten.” “Alright drive safe.”

    She clicked off and I turned onto the road to home. After a few minutes I turned onto my street and drove pass a manicured lawn after manicured lawn until I pulled into the driveway, greeted by red shutters and lawn gnomes, everything about the house screamed “upper class suburban white family” but it was home. I locked my car and walked onto the porch. Opening the front door, the tangy smell of Chinese take out wafted through the air, I closed the door and tossed my purse in the hall closet before walking into the kitchen where I found mom setting takeout cartons on the kitchen table. ‘Hey mom.” “Hey Spence.” She gave me a quick kiss on the cheek.” “Wash your hands and then sit down to eat.” I turned on the kitchen faucet and scrubbed my hands. “Where’s dad?” “Speak of the devil.” He walked in and popped a sweet and sour chicken in his mouth. “Sit and eat.” Mom firmly instructed. I took a seat as mom passed plates, loading up our plates as we discussed our day, just like we always have done, ever since I can remember.

    “You have your appointment with Mrs. Lark tomorrow at 10:00.” She gingerly included in the conversation, like she was defusing a bomb. I still don’t think she’s entirely comfortable with knowing I have Depression, but who can blame her, what’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear the word Depression? “I know” I swallowed a bite of food. “I can go with you if you want.” “I’ll be fine.” I grabbed the empty plates and took them over to the sink to wash them. “Are you sure?” “Yes, I’m sixteen, I got to spread my wings a little, learn to fly.” She still seemed slightly unsure so I tried to put her at ease. “I’ll be fine, I promise.” She hesitated for a moment before finally agreeing. “Okay.”

    After dinner we sat in the living room to watch a stupid 80‘s movie, filled with cheesy one liners and cheap special effects. “Alright troops.” Mom got up to stretch. “I’m headed to bed.” Dad got up as well before saying “I think I’ll join you. “ I kissed them both Goodnight before they trudging upstairs, and I dug out a pint of Ben and Jerry, switching the TV channel onto a Real Housewives of Beverly Hills marathon. Nothing boosts my self esteem like watching plastic surgery induced women fight over overpriced shoes, which I watched till their diamond started to blur together.

    I turned off the TV and walked upstairs to my bedroom. I pulled my pajamas and slid into bed, snuggling into my blanket. I tried to fall asleep, but it seemed it was going to be one of those nights where all you can do is think. About your future, your past, and your present. The gears just start turning and you can’t stop them no matter what, which usually leads to some sort of life crisis at One o’clock in the morning, but for now all you can do is think. Everything you put off thinking about comes back to haunt you at night, when the air is still and the only thing keeping your company is the rhythm of your breathing.

    I guess I finally fell asleep because the next thing I knew I was goggling reaching to turn off the annoying beeping of my alarm clock. I stumbled downstairs after trudging out of bed and jumping in the shower. I found mom eating breakfast and reading the newspaper. I grabbed the orange juice out of the fridge and poured myself a glass.

    “Morning honey.” “Hey mom.” I took a swig of OJ. “I’ve got to swing by the office today for a few hours so I won’t be back before you.” “Okay.” She picked up her paperwork and stuck it in her briefcase, quickly kissing the top of my forehead before grabbing her car keys. “I love you kiddo.” “I love you too.” She swept out the front door, but not before saying “If there’s any issues just call me.” then she left. After breakfast, I worked on catching up on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills till I had to leave . I grabbed my car keys, left for my appointment and drove to the building lot where Mrs.Larks therapist office was located.

    I walked in and signed in, I took a seat in the waiting room before Mrs. Lark walked out of her office, comforting a hysterical woman and a grim faced face man who I assumed was her husband. “Hey Spencer.”

    She motioned for me to walk into her office. I sat down on the familiar lumpy beige couch and examined the plain colored walls framed with cheap knockoff artwork of the Italian riverside, facing wall to wall bookshelves that housed degrees and diplomas.

    Mrs.Lark tucked a piece of blonde hair behind her ear before grabbing her notebook and pen off of the side table. “How have you been?” She asked. “Alright.” “Any issues with your medicine?” “None so far.” She scribbled on her clipboard. “Okay well, I thought we could try something new this session.” “And that would be?” “Let’s discuss your fears, what’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you then ask yourself what you fear?” I thought or a moment. “I really don’t know.” “Just anything heights, snakes, storms?” “I don’t really fear those things, I mean that’s just common sense.” “What do you mean?” “I don’t fear skyscrapers but I’m not going to jump off of one.” “So you are saying you don’t fear anything?” “I wouldn’t say that, I just don’t know what I fear.” “Interesting.” She scribbled on her clipboard.

    We talked some more about the typical shrink stuff like my feelings and crap like that, then the session was over. I thanked her and walked out to my car and drove to the nearest Starbucks. After ordering my latte I walked over to Williams Deans Park, which was basically just a plot of land with a ratty playground and ran rusty bench. If I had a park named after me when I bit the dust I would like something a little nicer than a run down playground. I took a sip of coffee and started to think about the fear exercise. I wanted to know what I feared, not just some stupid life metaphor that sound like it should be plastered on a daytime drama.

    I don’t even fear death, I’ve pretty much just accepted death as just something we all have to face in order to make room for others in life. I thought harder. What about how I felt last night, the terrifying feeling of knowing that there are going to be times where I will not know what to do in my life, or feel that sadness in the very bottom of my bones that creeps like a forgotten nightmare. The undeniable fact that I will, I’ll let myself down, or the unforgivable pressure to carry on even if it’s the last thing I want to do. Then it it me.
    I fear life.

  19. Sophie Gersten

    Outstanding advice! Thanks for sharing, Kellie!

    The power of re-wording is incredible! Sometimes it helps to change the whole reader’s perception and attitude to your writing. Besides, it’s reasonable to use a plagiarism checker to make sure that your writing has no similarities with already published works.



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