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Skidmore College
The Skidmore Guide to Writing

Style and Clarity

Style and clarity go together. Do you sound like yourself when you write? Does your reader understand you? Does your reader want to keep reading?

This section offers ten suggestions to help you develop your own voice and write clear, understandable, authoritative prose. Keys for success: liveliness and simplicity.

1. Write naturally, use only words you understand.

Although it's tempting to use fancy language to give your prose more weight, unless you fully understand a word's denotations (meaning) and connotations (implications), your meaning may suffer.

The computer's thesaurus may be handy, but it won't give you shades of meaning, and it may not provide you with an effective word every time. Use a thesaurus to remind you of words you already know, but just can't remember at the moment. The thesaurus should be a guide, not an authority; and don't forget to check your choice in the dictionary.

It's great to expand your vocabulary. The best way is by reading widely and paying attention to the way good writers use words. You'll discover words that are lively, provocative, precise, colorful, and engaging. Make these words your own by using them in your writing.

2. Eliminate unnecessary words and phrases.

Look for overused, gasbag phrases such as

  •  due to
  • the fact that
  • in order to
  • is when
  • of great importance
  • I believe that (in an essay, unless you're quoting someone else, you're the only speaker with beliefs).

3. Write actively, watch out for the passive voice.

In an active sentence, the subject performs the action. In a passive sentence, the action is being done to the subject.

     Active: Joe asked Jane to lend him her notebook.
     Passive: Jane was asked for her notebook.

     Active: He loves you
     Passive: You are loved.

     Active: The board of directors decided to fire you.
     Passive: It was decided that you would be fired.

Active sentences make your writing clearer. The passive voice, particularly when it's used over and over again, makes your writing hard to read.

Wordy, vague, and cluttered, the passive voice nevertheless has its uses. In a scientific experiment, for example, the name of the scientist is often unimportant.

"Sally boiled the water for five minutes" is active, directing our attention to Sally. But who cares about Sally? The passive construction, "The water was boiled for five minutes," correctly reveals the action without distracting, irrelevant information. In fact, the passive construction, because it eliminates the active subject, implies scientific objectivity. That's why, in the sciences and social sciences, readers will expect passive construction in some essays and reports.

Learn the difference between active and passive voice, and choose the right one for your essay.

4. Pay attention to verbs and verb forms.

Verbs are powerful words in any sentence. Use strong verbs, and change "ing" forms into present or past tense.

     Strong evidence can make an argument better.
     Strong evidence strengthens an argument.
     This problem is getting to be more and more difficult to solve.
     This problem grows increasingly difficult to solve.

5. Scan your writing for small words and long sentences.

This combination often creates stupor-inducing wordiness and vagueness in your prose.

Example:  It is this book that must be read in order to observe the use of irony which is striking in her story due to the extreme sharpness of her perceptions.

Her sharp perceptions produce striking irony in this book.

6. Highlight all uses of the verb "to be" and try to reword as many as you can.

Many times, we simply plug in this poor, overused, boring, BORING, BORING word in place of a more interesting one, just because we're in a hurry to get our thoughts down. Lively prose uses lively verbs; remember that "to be" merely indicates a state of being. Zzzzzzz.

Get rid of

  • it is... that
  • it was
  • there is
  • there are
  • there was
  • there were.

7. Avoid excessive or overused qualifiers.

Try to eliminate as many adverbs as you can, especially ones that modify whole sentences.

"Hopefully, we'll go to the dance."

Does this mean "We hope we'll go to the dance" or "We'll go to the dance in a hopeful frame of mind?" Overuse of adverbs lends a gee-whiz quality to the prose. Here's a list of some adjectives and adverbs that are used so often their meaning has been diluted:

  • totally
  • basically
  • actually
  • extremely
  • really
  • incredibly, incredible
  • awesome
  • amazing
  • ridiculous
  • simplistic
  • very
  • quite
  • unique.

Look them up if you're tempted to use them, and make sure they say what you mean them to say.

8. Avoid cliches.

Cliches weaken your ideas. So stay away from ...

  • tried and true
  • spur of the moment
  • paved the way
  • in this day and age
  • nick of time
  • few and far between
  • hard as a rock
  • hit the nail on the head
  • moving experience
  • pride and joy
  • each and every.

9. Beware of repeating yourself.

Guard against pairing adjectives and adverbs with other words similar in meaning.

     Example: The old antiques from a distant time period were on sale at the spacious, expansive store.

Well, all antiques are old, by definition. Time and period refer to the same thing. And what meaningful difference is there between expansive and spacious?

10. Don't use slangy or colloquial expressions.

     Example: The little kids who go to the local day care center are totally cool to be around. It's awesome to see how things that would seem gross or weird to guys in the dorm seem perfectly okay to them.

In college writing, "little kids" are "children;" "totally cool" may be "interesting," or "fascinating"; nothing is "awesome," "gross," or "weird." "Guys" might be "students" and "perfectly okay" may be acceptable. Your readers will expect that your written work will be on a higher level than informal conversations with friends.