Is your writing mechanical and stiff? Does it resemble the Tin Man, trying to speak through rusted jaws?
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing an informal post for your blog or an article explaining complex technical concepts. What you write needs to flow and have vitality. The following are seven ways to make your writing less stiff and unnatural.
1) Care about what you’re writing
Whatever you write, approach it with enthusiasm. If you can’t muster enthusiasm, approach it with interest. Otherwise, you’ll sound like a high school student forced to write an essay on the lifecycle of the cicada or the themes of Absalom, Absalom! As I write in this post, you can find something of interest in pretty much any topic.
2) Apply some anticoagulants
If your writing feels clotted, check for these problems:
- Rampant, redundant adjectives and adverbs
“The amazingly vivid red car zipped across the icy, frozen-over, barren field forcefully and violently. After the crimson vehicle crashed noisily into the strong oak, it combusted powerfully in a colossal ball of badly smelling flame, causing my eyes to start watering profusely.”
- Overuse of the passive tense and the verb ‘to be.’
“I was being followed by him, and before I knew it I was feeling his hand as it was grabbing my shoulder.”
- Sentences that run on and trip over themselves.
Using my comb, the one that my aunt had given me that torrid July day years ago, made my hair look neater, though I wondered if my mom, stickler for neat hair that she was, would even notice, as her eyes were better at detecting flaws than pretty features, for the most part, unless she was in a good mood.
- Clunky word choices. ‘Thus’ and ‘hitherto’ keep popping up in the text, along with ‘ergo’ and ‘therefore.’ Your writing has too many ‘things’ and too much ‘stuff.’ When people in the text speak, they ‘state’ instead of ‘say.’ You love jargon with a love that is passionate and true.
3) Fuel it with the right words
When you order orange juice at a restaurant, you hope you’ll get orange juice, not orange-flavored water infused with high-fructose corn syrup.
Likewise, you don’t want your writing to sound highly processed, unnatural, and full of artificial flavors. You wouldn’t want your reader to feel like they’ve eaten something that contains red number 40 and partially hydrogenated soybean oil.
Consider this: “I arrived there, perceived the extant circumstances, and took control from those exercising sovereignty.”
Now consider this: “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
Context matters; any word can be misused or used well. But in general, go for clean and concrete word choices. Ask yourself what each word contributes. Is it the best word to use at that moment, or can it be done away with or replaced by another word that’s richer in meaning? (Do you need to say that someone “yelled loudly” when ‘yelled’ already conveys loudness?) Beware of clichés, too; using them is as easy as pie, but they’re non-nutritious filler.
4) Watch out for excessive repetition
Your writing will come across as stiff and choppy if your sentences have the same length, and the same rhythm, and the same word choices, and the same structure. Repetition can be used to good effect, but in most cases, the writing starts to lurch instead of flow.
5) Don’t preen
You write to communicate, not to show off. Your writing might dazzle your audience, but that happy effect is incidental. Your main purpose is to talk to your readers and share what’s on your mind. Don’t start tweaking your writing to try and make it look more impressive, whatever that means (“look at me and my shiny thesaurus”). Chances are you’ll tweak the life out of it.
6) Read what you’ve written out loud
Put your writing aside for a bit, then pick it up again and read it out loud. Don’t just look for typos or grammatical errors. Ask yourself what sounds awkward. Edit the parts that make you stumble.
7) Read more
Take time to read good writing every day, in your field and outside of it. Doing this could broaden your vocabulary and give you a better sense of what needs to be edited in your own work.
If you need additional help with writing and editing, let me know. In the meantime, I hope these tips help you make your writing less stiff and unnatural.