When someone tells you a piece you’ve written doesn’t “flow well,” it can be maddeningly unspecific. But there’s good news: it’s surprisingly easy to fix. We’ve all heard the same advice before: read your work aloud, sleep on it, always proofread, etc. That’s all good guidance, but as an editor, I prefer a more analytical approach to writing—so I’ve assembled a few concrete tips to tighten your prose, improve your overall flow, and produce clear, easy-to-read copy. After you’ve written a first draft, follow these steps:
1. Reduce “to be” verbs.
If a piece of copy feels wordy, weighed down, or difficult to read, it’s often because you’ve gotten carried away with “to be” verbs. These include be, am, is, are, was, were, being, and been. “To be” verbs overload copy because they require secondary verbs. Often you can eliminate “to be” verbs by getting straight to your action verb. For example, instead of saying “I’m not able to do that,” you could say, “I can’t do that.” By following this principle, you’ll streamline your prose.
2. Limit prepositions.
Just like reducing “to be” verbs, axing prepositions tightens your writing. Try to limit yourself to one or two prepositional phrases per sentence. Using more than that can make sentences long and difficult to follow. If you overuse prepositions, brainstorm other ways to write sentences and break up ideas. Some prepositions are unavoidable—and you shouldn’t try to eliminate them completely—but use them sparingly.
3. Vary sentence structures.
Even the best writers tend to lean on favorite words, phrases, and sentence structures. For readers, however, this type of repetition leads to disinterest. To combat reader boredom, vary the way you start your sentences. In the process, you can usually write better transitions and improve sentence-level cadence. Think of sentence length as another technical instrument in your writing toolkit—a way to mindfully emphasize certain points and de-emphasize others.
4. Avoid noun strings.
A noun string is exactly what it sounds like: too many nouns in a row. Noun strings can be difficult to avoid, especially in business or technical writing. And sometimes it’s impossible to dodge both noun strings and prepositions, so you’re forced to choose whichever sounds best. The important thing is to be aware of them and how they affect your writing. Unpack your noun strings, write them in different ways, and read sentences out loud to find the smoothest path.
5. Cut unnecessary words.
Check your work for redundancy, excessive modifiers, and empty words. If you repeat similar ideas in more than one sentence, try to condense. Be wary of words like modifiers—adjectives or adverbs that describe nouns. Focus on clarity, and ask yourself if each modifier enhances your meaning. Likewise, cut phrases such as in my opinion, kind of, actually, truly, basically, and definitely. By cutting unnecessary words, you’ll emphasize your main points, instead of burying the lead.
6. Examine the cohesion.
Editing for cohesion means seeing how each sentence and paragraph contributes to the overall whole. Each line should build off the previous one, and paragraphs should begin with topic sentences, gently leading the reader along a journey to the conclusion. On both the sentence and paragraph level, use transitional phrases and reference old information before introducing anything new, so the reader can easily follow along.
Good writing doesn’t have to be guesswork or natural-born talent. It simply takes time. Your revision process should, in part, become a scavenger hunt, complete with the knowledge of what you should look to eliminate and reword. Whether you’re a professional writer or someone who dreads putting words together, if you follow these six simple steps, your writing will improve tremendously.
Featured photo credit: Nic McPhee via flickr.com