5 Ways to Clean Up Your Writing

By Karl Anderson

05/31/16

Anytime you’re presenting your writing for an audience of readers, whether online or in print, you want to make sure it’s easy to understand and free of errors. If you’re creating content on behalf of a client, it’s especially important to strive for clarity and effectiveness throughout the work. When writing and editing, here are some key strategies to keep in mind:

1. Make your point as directly as possible.

Successful writing is straightforward, without unnecessary embellishment. It’s much more respectful to your readers to communicate in an accessible way than it is to use jargon or flowery language to try to give the appearance of depth. If you’re writing an article, for example, it’s wise to follow a time-tested structure you likely practiced in school: begin by expressing your “thesis statement” that explains your overall point, and then follow it with evidence or examples to support it. Where appropriate for the medium, finish with a summary, call to action, or other conclusion.

2. Simplify your writing style.

Generally speaking, excessively formal writing is boring. To increase the impact of your writing, keep sentences simple. Don’t try to cram too many ideas into any one sentence, especially if separate clauses can stand on their own as independent statements. If a sentence is overly long or too complex, readers can be overwhelmed with more information than they can easily retain as they read through to the end.

Strive to use words that convey your ideas quickly and easily. In most situations, contractions are appropriate and in line with the natural way readers speak. Similarly, remove words and phrases that add nothing to the meaning of your statements, such as “in order to,” “start to,” “very,” “really,” “there is,” or “there are.” If you use the word “that” before a verb, try reading the sentence without it; if the meaning is still clear, you probably don’t need it.

3. Use more effective phrasing

Even if you’re using correct grammar and writing in a simple, accessible style, there may be additional ways to improve the text and make it stronger or more persuasive. One of the most important techniques is to write in active voice. Writing in passive voice isn’t incorrect, but it can seem wishy-washy in comparison to active voice, where the subject precedes the verb. In the passive-voice phrase “the soldiers were led by the general,” the general is relegated to the object of the preposition by. But if we make the general the subject—“The general led the soldiers”—it’s in active voice. Not only is it a more straightforward phrase, but it asserts that the general is taking a more direct action in leading the troops.

Other ways to improve the effectiveness of your phrasing include using stronger verbs in place of common ones like “does,” “goes,” or “has.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with those words, but if you can tell the reader more in the same amount of space, you probably should. For instance, you could write “she did her math homework,” but you could also write “she completed her math homework.” Using “completed” means that readers can understand more specific detail, with no change in word count: the student didn’t do just some of her homework—she did all of it.


4. Be consistent, yet avoid redundancy.

While the preceding suggestions focus on writing at the word and sentence level, you also want to look at your composition as a whole and maintain consistency, in terms of perspective, point of view, and voice. You don’t want to unintentionally suggest contradictions. But consistency also applies to formatting. For example, if you use bullet points, they are all elements in a unified list, so they should all be treated in a consistent manner. Note how each of the numbered subheads in this blog post corresponds to the preceding statement “here are some key strategies to keep in mind.” Therefore, in this case, each subhead is formatted as an action beginning with a present-tense verb followed by a direct object.

While looking back at your composition as a whole, pay attention to instances where you may have been redundant. Are you simply rehashing a point you’ve already made? Or is there too much repetition of a word or phrase in a given section of your text? Have you used the same word twice in one sentence? Word repetition can cause readers to lose their place as their eyes move across the page, which takes them out of the moment; therefore, you want to eliminate any unnecessary redundancy.

5. Ask a friend to proofread your work.

One of the most important strategies to help you clean up your writing is to maintain a sense of humility and recognize that you may have made some mistakes. It’s remarkable how easy it is to miss a typo or punctuation error if your eyes are accustomed to staring at the same page for a long time. That’s why it’s always a good idea to ask a friend or colleague if he or she wouldn’t mind reading your content before you consider it final, just to provide a “second set of eyes.” This is important for writers at any level, and a proofreader may have some other helpful feedback or additional insights you hadn’t considered. Proofreaders’ time and talents are valuable, so always remember to be gracious when asking for and accepting their help.

One way or another, all of this advice boils down to trying to see your writing from a reader’s point of view. If you look at it that way, and you’ve cleaned it up accordingly to successfully and concisely meet your goals for the work, then you’re ready to publish.