Make Your Writing Clearer: 6 Tips for Rewording Sentences

Make Your Writing Clearer: 6 Tips for Rewording Sentences
Updated on 5 March 2015

The author James Michener said, “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” If you’re an aspiring author or someone striving for clarity in your professional or academic writing, you appreciate the methodical march of the rewriting process. Each word in a sentence has a job; cut those that do nothing. These six tips will help you achieve clear and concise writing.

Avoid the Passive Voice

The passive voice is flaccid. The subject becomes a helpless thing, acted on by outside forces. In a well-written sentence, the verb is powerful and precise, an active tool at the subject’s command. For example:

  • Passive: It is believed by the boxer that the power is there to cause his opponent to fall down.
  • Active: The boxer thinks he has a knock-out punch.

Trim the Fat from Flabby Phrases

Some writers use wordy phrases when a single word will do.

Use because instead of:

  • Due to the fact that
  • In light of the fact that
  • Owing to the fact that

Use about instead of:

  • Concerning the matter of
  • In reference to
  • With regard to

Use can instead of:

  • Is able to
  • Is in a position to
  • Has the capacity to

Limit Prepositional Phrases

Use an apostrophe, not a prepositional phrase, to show possession.

  • Bad: It was the opinion of the teacher that Susan was ready for third grade.
  • Better: In the teacher’s opinion, Susan was ready for third grade.

Don’t use too many prepositional phrases in a sentence.

  • Bad: The ultimate point of the discussion with all of the people was to reach a consensus of the group about what to do with the leftover funds from the fundraiser.
  • Better: The group discussed options for the leftover fundraiser money and ultimately reached a decision.

Image via Flickr by Nic's events

Watch for Wordiness

Wordiness is a problem for many writers, whether it’s redundancy, stating the obvious, or packing a sentence with excess detail and unnecessary modifiers.

  • Wordy: Imagine in your mind what a caveman from an earlier prehistoric time must have thought about when he originally saw fire for the first time.
  • Better: Imagine what prehistoric man thought when he saw fire for the first time.

For precision and clarity, excise these words from your writing:

  • kind of
  • sort of
  • really
  • basically
  • actually
  • generally
  • typically
  • for all intents and purposes

Edit your writing for redundant pairs such as:

  • true facts
  • past history
  • free gift
  • unexpected surprise
  • each individual

Combine Sentences

In many cases, you can combine information from two short sentences into one complex sentence without sacrificing clarity. Sentence variety also improves readability.

  • Wordy: The house next door is occupied by three widowed sisters. They moved here in 1985 with their three dogs and haven’t left since.
  • Better: Three widows and their dogs live next door, their home since 1985.

Avoid Vague Nouns and Noun Strings

All-purpose nouns, such as factor, situation, and area, lead to obscure writing.

  • Vague: A college education is an important factor in finding a job in the area of accounting.
  • Better: For accounting jobs, a college degree is important.

Writers in a specialty niche such as healthcare or technology often slip into jargon, resulting in noun strings that obscure meaning.

  • Vague: The mammography team is working on the radiology technologist radiation protection quality improvement program.
  • Better: The mammography team will complete a quality improvement program for protecting radiology technicians from excess radiation.

Writing for clarity requires a ruthless eye for editing your work; it’s helpful to walk away from your composition for a few hours and approach it with new eyes. Then cut the unnecessary, rewrite the unwieldy, and, in the words of Elmore Leonard, “Try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Do you have any favorite techniques for clearing up your writing?

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