Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Improving Your Writing with Grammar

The good things about being flooded with work, when it's intellectually stimulating and in my area of interest, are* that I find myself gloriously busy and productive at work.  I love the feeling of getting to work and wasting little time, moving from a writing assignment to a meeting to a research project to picking apart a witness's** weaknesses based on his or her prior testimony.  When busy, especially when working on cases set for trial, I feel like I function at 110% or more.  I come home feeling tired but satisfied from working late but also working on matters I find challenging and interesting.

The bad thing, of course, is that it leaves me with very little creative energy to spend on my other life pursuits.  And I can't talk about the details of my job publically because for one most of the good stuff is confidential and for two I will not be one of those people who talks about work on a blog she knows some of her coworkers read.  (With one notable exception for a funny story.)

I've been doing a lot of writing -- and proofreading -- lately, which has prompted me to think about various ways to improve the strength of one's written work.  A few of my most-used tips are below and I would love to hear how you make your writing stronger in the comments section!


1.  Learn to Identify and Eliminate Your Use of the Passive Voice
The passive voice is a sentence formulation in which the object of the sentence becomes the subject.  For example, The witness was interviewed by the first-year associate.  This is a bad sentence.  It's clumsy and roundabout and uses unnecessary words.  A critic of the passive voice explained its weakness as follows:
Active voice makes subjects do something (to something); passive voice permits subjects to have something done to them (by someone or something). Some argue that active voice is more muscular, direct, and succinct, passive voice flabbier, more indirect, and wordier. If you want your words to seem impersonal, indirect, and noncommittal, passive is the choice, but otherwise, active voice is almost invariably likely to prove more effective.

(Wikipedia, supposedly from the Columbia Guide to Standard American English.)

You can often tell when someone is using passive voice by looking for "was"'s and "is"s.  When possible, rewrite the passive voice into an active voice by restructuring the sentence and switching the subject and object.  For example, The first-year associate interviewed the witness.  Ahh, better, no?

(Source.)  Don't confuse Finn with your vagueness.

2.  Reduce the Use of Vague Pronouns
Pronouns are words that replace more specific nouns.  I find that I am very prone to overuse pronouns, which makes my sentences vague to anyone who does not live inside my head.  For example, Ted interviewed Paul about the event.  He said it went very well.  This may be too over-the-top of an example, but you can see how the use of pronouns "he" and "it" confuses what I'm trying to say.  Lately I have attempted to replace pronouns with more specific nouns and I believe it has greatly improved my writing.  For example, Ted interviewed Paul about the event. Ted said the interview went very well.  (See, these more specific nouns may have changed the way you read the sentence!)

3.  Shorten Your Sentences
Almost every sentence could stand to be shorter.  After you finish writing something, go back through it and try to eliminate some of the words that you don't need.  It will sharpen up your writing and make it easier for others to read what you write.  If others can read your writing with ease, then they are more likely to understand your point.  That's the main object of writing in the first place.


4.  Know Your Grammatical Rules
I know that sometimes the rules of grammar can seem never-ending.  For practical purposes, they are.  However, there are a few very common rules that people break all the time.  These are a few of my own pet peeves:
  • Do not split infinitives.  An infinitive is a verb with "to" in front of it.  E.g., "to try", "to cross-examine."  Whenever you use an infinitive, you cannot put any words in between the "to" and the verb.  "To vehemently try" and "to brutally cross-examine" are wrong.  Instead, use "to try vehemently" or "to cross-examine brutally."
  • Who or whom?  I read a good rule recently:  "Who" should be used where it could replace "he," while "whom" should be used were it could replace "him."  For example, "Who/whom ate the last piece of cookie dough?"  You could also say, "Did he eat the last piece of cookie dough?"  Therefore, you would use "Who."  In the case of "Who/whom are you taking to the court?" You would also say, "Are you taking him to the court?"  Therefore, the sentence would read, "Whom are you taking to court?"  (Source.)
  • Read every TheOatmeal poster about grammar.  Seriously.  They are helpful.  (When to use "i.e.") (how to use a semicolon) (words you need to stop misspelling) (how to use an apostrophe).
  • It's could have, would have, should have, etc.  NOT could of, would of, should of.
  • Its v. It's.  This is covered in "how to use an apostrophe," but it deserves to be pulled out and highlighted.  Use "its" to indicate possession.  For example, Did you get the dog its water?  The water belongs to the dog, so we use "its."  On the contrary, It's so hot out here that the dog will need water.  There we are trying to say "IT IS so hot out here...".  When you want to say "it is," that's a conjunction and you use "it's."
That's all I've got for today!  I know I'm missing things, so tell me:  what are your grammatical hang-ups?

* Edit:  Ironically, this sentence orginally contained a grammatical error that I did not include in my list of grammatical rules:  subject-verb agreement.***  Subject-verb agreement requires that the subject of your sentence agree with the verb of your sentence (generally in terms of plurality).  The sentence orginally said:  "The good things about being flooded with work, when it's intellectually stimulating and in my area of interest, is that I find myself gloriously busy and productive at work."  The subject of that sentence was "things" (plural) and the verb was "is" (singular).  It should have been "things" (plural) and "are" (plural).  I find I am most prone to this error when I edit some of the words in my sentences and forget to check the rest of the sentence!

** Ack, another error (and an object lesson in more carefully proofreading posts about grammar). This sentence originally and incorrectly read "a witnesses' weaknesses".  I meant to refer to the multiple weaknesses of a singular witness.  Instead I used the plural word for witness.  As DebEditor thoughtfully pointed out in the comments, it should either be "a witness's weaknesses" or "a witness' weaknesses".  Thank you Deb!

*** This reminds me to mention verb tense agreement, which is another grammatical pet peeve of mine.  If you use multiple verbs in a sentence, they should all be in the same tense.  For example, it is wrong to say, "I am most prone to this error when I edited some of the words in my sentences and have forgotten to check the rest of the sentence!"  That sentence uses three different verb tenses.  I need to pick one.  "I am most prone...I edit...and forget..."; "I was most prone...I edited...and forgot..."; "I have been most prone...I have edited...and have forgotten".

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