4 MORE Ways to Instantly Improve Your Writing
Updated: Jan 29, 2021
Writing classes have their place. Writing workshops have their place. But sometimes ya just need some down-and-dirty tips for a quick fix of that "thank God, I'm progressing a writer" feeling.
Well, have I got you covered!
"There is"/"there was"
Today let's talk about 4 more pain points and how to improve them:
Sentence subjects longer than 7 words
1. Filter phrases
Filter phrases take away from the action by insisting on showing the POV character observing it.
Some common filter phrases:
"He saw X"
"She heard Y"
"I watched as Z"
"He smelled A"
"She felt B"
But here's the thing: we already know the POV character is observing the action. They're the POV. Everything on the page is happening through their eyes.
Don't waste page space by saying something we already know. Write what's happening!
Examples of filter phrases (+ how to fix them)
In some cases, you can just cut out the filter words and be good to go.
In other cases, you should turn the sentence around. Start with the thing they're observing, and then say how it affects them. This makes it more personal and draws the reader in.
Original sentence: The villain watched her daughter take the stage in the school talent show. (Here, the villain is the POV focus, but she's not the ACTION focus.)
Improved sentence: The villain's daughter took the stage in the school talent show. (Cutting out the POV filter lets us get right to the action.)
Original sentence: Anne Bonny smelled the salt in the sea air. (In this case, the focus in this sentence is really on the salty sea air, not on my girl Anne. The real question is, why does it matter to her? How does it make her feel?)
Improved sentence: The salty scent of sea air reminded Anne Bonny why she first became a pirate. (I reversed the order and moved into why she cares.)
Original sentence: Meredith felt the monster grab her arm. (This is a reeeeally bland way of saying a monster grabbed her. Like. Come on. A MONSTER just GRABBED HER, and we're gonna say "she felt it"??)
Improved sentence: The monster's tentacle snapped around Meredith's arm, its suction pads latching onto her skin.
Yes, this word looks and sounds gross.
What it means: you took an adjective or a verb and made a noun out of it.
Some examples of nominalizations:
Movement (from the verb move)
Optimization (from the verb optimize)
Patience (from the adjective patient)
Decision (from the verb decide)
Stupidity (from the adjective stupid)
Change as a noun (from change as a verb)
So why should we avoid words like these?
Nominalizations make the action or description more theoretical than in-the-moment.
In some cases, they also make the reader work harder to figure out what you mean.
You know those academic articles that take 50 years to read because the words are so thick? Every single time, it's because the PhD-wielding author uses these huge, theoretical nouns rather than the quick, active verbs or adjectives they came from.
Changing these nouns back to their original verb or adjective form will clarify what you mean in an easy-to-read format.
Examples of nominalizations (+ how to fix them)
A nominalization will end in a suffix ("-ion", "-ity," "-acy," "-ance," etc.)—and yes, "nominalization" itself is a nominalization, from the verb "nominalize," from the adjective/noun "nominal." Sorry 'bout that.
When you find a noun with a suffix, ask yourself what it's actually describing.
If it's describing an action, rephrase it as the act. If it's describing a noun, use it as an adjective.
Original sentence: Marianne's description of her actions aroused my suspicion. (We have noun forms of "describe," "act," and "suspicious.")
Improved sentence: I was suspicious of the way Marianne described how she'd acted. (This version makes the idea clearer and more personal.)
Original sentence: The motivation for the zombie's presence lacked clarity, given the absence of brains in the storeroom. (Here we have nouns for "motivate," "present," "clear," and "absent." And who's trying to figure out what motivates Mr. Undead? No one knows.)
Improved sentence: Oliver couldn't figure out why the zombie had entered the storeroom, since the shelves didn't hold any brains. (Rephrasing the sentence makes the whole thing easier to understand.)
Original sentence: The decision progression measurement indication was clear. (Sweet baby Jesus, we have 4 nominalizations in a row, and the first 3 are verbs used as nouns used as adjectives. We also don't know who's deciding what. Kill me.)
Improved sentence: As they decided on a new overlord, the PTA monitored how the voting progressed, and what the data indicated was clear. (The original was so muddled that I broke it up into multiple clauses so we can actually understand it. Magic!)
3. Progressive verbs
These actually look a lot like a "be" verb, but they function a little differently.
Where a "be" verb just acts as an equals sign, a progressive verb takes the form of a "be" verb + another verb ending in "-ing".
I am running from the wyvern.
She is murdering the villagers.
They were screaming at the caterpillars.
These aren't always bad, but most of the time, they're dragging out the sentence for no reason. That means they slow the pace for your reader, and they can even come across as a little rudimentary.
Examples of progressive verbs (+ how to fix them)
Do you have a sentence that includes a "be" verb + another verb ending in "-ing"? If so, you've got a progressive verb!
Most of the time, you can condense them to the second verb alone. Try this out, and ask yourself if it really needs to be in the progressive form. (You gotta answer yourself honestly here.) Sometimes it does! But a lot of the time, not so much.
Original sentence: The fangs of her second mouth were dripping acid.
Improved sentence: The fangs of her second mouth dripped acid.
Original sentence: The magical girls are spinning their ribbon wands and chanting to summon Cthulhu.
Improved sentence: The magical girls spin their ribbon wands and chant to summon Cthulhu.
4. Sentence subjects longer than 7 words
The rule of thumb is that sentence subjects should be less than 7 words.
Actually, you know what, this isn't just a rule of thumb. This is always, always true. Every time.
The subject and the verb need to be close together. Otherwise, the reader has to work hard trying to find them and might eventually forget what the subject even was. No good.
Note: they don't necessarily have to be right next to each other. The 7-word rule is about as long as you should go, though, and even that's a stretch.
Examples of long sentence subjects (+ how to fix them)
When your sentence subject is long, count the words.
If it takes more than 7 words to get to the verb, condense or rephrase so that the subject and verb are within 7 words of each other.
Original sentence: The alien sucking the color from the world around us and curbstomping the President spat in my face. (The subject is 14 words long before the verb "spat.")
Improved sentence: Sucking the color from the world around us, the alien curbstomping the President spat in my face. (The subject is now 5 words long because the first participle phrase doesn't come between the subject and the verb. Nice!)
Original sentence: "I'm ready to assume command over Europe," Diana the gynecologist, who had long yearned for world domination, said. (The subject of the dialogue tag is 10 words long before it gets to the verb "said.")
Improved sentence: "I'm ready to assume command over Europe," said Diana the gynecologist, who had long yearned for world domination. (A simple solution: move the verb to the very beginning of the dialogue tag! The subject and verb are now side by side. Easy to read.)
Recap of how you're now a next-level writer
So now you know how to fix ALL these things in your writing:
"There is"/"there was"
Sentence subjects longer than 7 words
Go forth and edit yourself like a pro!
I believe in you!