Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Seven Sentences You Should Stop Writing

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I like reading text that sounds as if the writer is speaking to me. I also like watching ice skating that looks as though it is effortless. And I enjoy hearing music that makes me think of melody and beauty rather than the thousands of hours of practice the musician must have spent.

What am I saying? If you catch my drift, I'm trying to tell you that writers who sound as if they're speaking to you don't achieve that end by simply transcribing. They do it with careful, diligent editing.

Early drafts of their work likely include the seven mistakes below, but you can bet that they edit them out quickly.

Check your writing and do the same:

1. Sentences beginning with prepositional phrases

Here are three examples of sentences beginning with prepositional phrases:

  • By 3 pm, all the runners should be finished.
  • In June 2020, when we reduced the requirement for a hefty down-payment, some managers warned the decision would bankrupt the company.
  • After Spring Break, we return to classes.

We can argue about whether the information given in the prepositional phrase is actually necessary but here's my rule: if you need to include the phrase, put it later in the sentence. Like this:

  • All the runners should be finished by 3 pm.
  • We reduced the requirement for a hefty down-payment in June 2020 and managers warned the decision would bankrupt the company.
  • We return to classes after Spring Break.

Do you see how this restructuring makes each sentence faster and more interesting to read?

2. Sentences with unclear antecedents

Many writers use "it" or "this" to refer, rather vaguely, to an idea or concept from a previous sentence. Here are three examples:

  • I was following my plan. It was productive, easy, fun and fulfilling.
  • Having a daily schedule is a good idea. But it’s not necessary to follow it religiously. This is counterproductive.
  • A solid business plan allows us to celebrate how far we've come. This helps us maintain energy when we really need it.

Sure, the reader can probably deduce what the writer meant by "it" and "this." But why force them to go to that work? Here's how to rewrite those sentences:

  • I was following my plan.  The work was productive, easy, fun and fulfilling.
  • Having a daily schedule is a good idea. But it's not necessary to follow it religiously. This obsession with rules is counterproductive.
  • A solid business plan allows us to celebrate how far we've come. This focus helps us maintain energy when we really need it.

Bonus tip: Do a search for "it" and "this" in your text (Control + F) and make sure your meaning is 100% clear each time you use either word.

3. Sentences using the passive voice

I don't believe the passive voice is universally bad. (Watch this video by Geoffrey Pullum if you want to learn the upside of the passive.) But at the very least you should use the passive deliberately, to achieve a specific goal. Here are three examples of sentences in passive, where the actor of the sentence doesn't appear until after the verb:

  • The entire stretch of highway was paved by the crew.
  • A safety video will be watched by the staff every year.
  • The whole suburb was destroyed by the forest fire.

And here they are again, as active. Aren't they easier to understand this way?

  • The crew paved the entire stretch of highway.
  • The staff is required to watch a safety video every year.
  • The forest fire destroyed the whole suburb.

Bonus tip: Run your text through the Hemingway App to identify the passive. (The app will highlight it in bright green.) Just ignore the App's red and yellow highlighting of long sentences. The Hemingway App treats every long sentence as a problem, which we know to be untrue.

4. Sentences over-using the verb 'to be'

Writing coaches and teachers will often challenge their students to write an entire piece without using the verb to be. Hard work, but not impossible. Take these sentences as examples:

  • There is no method that is guaranteed to succeed.
  • There are many weeds that overwinter.
  • There will be many who disagree.

Delete the state of being verb and you'll be rewarded with a much shorter, sharper sentence:

  • No method guarantees success.
  • Many weeds overwinter.
  • Many will disagree.

I'm not suggesting that you ban 'to be' from your vocabulary. But keep it to a minimum and you'll produce better sentences.

5. Sentences using the word, "thing."

I sometimes use the word "thing" but I'm working to stop myself. Others seem to embrace this vague, tired, imprecise word.

Examine these sentences:

  • The only things she still needed were the tent, a sleeping bag, and dry shoes.
  • The box was filled with things from his childhood.
  • The committee's proposal was a good thing.

Then, make them more precise:

  • The only gear she still needed was the tent, a sleeping bag, and dry shoes.
  • The box was filled with keepsakes from his childhood.
  • The committee's proposal was a good compromise
​​​​​Also, never use the phrase, "the thing is."

The thing is, he just doesn't understand.

Instead, express the same idea with a much more meaningful word, "truth."

The truth is, he just doesn't understand.

6. Sentences using the phrase, "the fact that."

This phrase is never needed. Just delete it. Here are a few examples:

  • I hate the fact that my editor always uses a red pencil on my work.
  • The fact that the bank clerks are always so slow frustrates me.
  • I appreciate the fact that my favourite movie always wins an Oscar.

See how easy it is to get rid of this phrase:

  • I hate the way my editor always uses a red pencil on my work.
  • The slow attitude of bank clerks always frustrates me.
  • I like the way my favourite movie always wins an Oscar.

7. Sentences using unnecessary exclamation points — like this!

Did you know that Donald Trump posted 2,251 tweets using exclamation marks in one year alone. If that is not enough to scare you off the practice, let me remind you of the rule. Never use an exclamation point to jazz up a sentence. Exclamations should be reserved for true exclamations, "Wow!" "You're kidding!" or "Duck!" If your sentence is funny or interesting enough, it won't need the exclamation mark.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday November 24th 2020, 5:34 PM
Comment by: Nelson B. (Campinas Brazil)
Excellent tips!
Wednesday November 25th 2020, 11:26 AM
Comment by: Jeff S. (Durham, NC)
Thank you for a refreshing reminder about the traps that lay in every sentence. I confront the roaches in my writing all the time, mostly trying to stomp out the verb "to be." I should note, however, that our favorite little intransitive verb makes writing easier and faster. I wonder if you think these miscues, the seven sins, reveals lazy writing? Or missed opportunities?
Thursday November 26th 2020, 9:50 AM
Comment by: David C. (Marietta, GA)
After reading your post, Daphne, the fact that you are grammar helpful was proved beyond doubt by the things you shared. They proved to be or not to be priceless—depending on the reader!

As my high school gymnastics coach used to emphasize when I repeatedly balked at throwing a back flip on the parallel bars, “Cook, you can’t make chicken pie out of chicken s**t.” His advice needed no exclamation point to stand the test of time.
Monday November 30th 2020, 3:28 PM
Comment by: Jeff S. (Durham, NC)
One more thought on sentence traps. The "it" and "thing" issue you pointed to are like black holes. Verbs, too. They can mask missed opportunities to energize a sentence. For instance: "Her large black notebooks were scattered around her bedroom." The killer here is the verb "scattered." (Nice verb but...) While it may be true that the notebooks were scattered, it would be better to show how they were scattered. This works better, I think: "Her notebooks were stacked in threes and fours by her bedside, two atop her bureau, another burrowed back of a Donna Tartt novel on the bottom shelf of her nightstand.

Also, apologies for the verb error in my earlier note: I wrote, "I wonder if you think these miscues...reveals lazy writing?" "Reveal" should not have been plural but singular. I latched on to the wrong noun.
Tuesday December 1st 2020, 1:43 AM
Comment by: Shashidhar S.
A well written and eye-opening piece, Daphne. Thanks! It would be a valuable addition to 'Dreyer's English' or 'Several Short Sentences About Writing' by Verlyn Klinkenborg.
Thursday December 3rd 2020, 3:04 PM
Comment by: Martin J.
Good, but could be improved – or enhanced.

I’d suggest that, by moving the prepositional phrase to the middle of one of those sentences, it has become ambiguous.

“We reduced the requirement for a hefty down-payment in June 2020 and managers warned the decision would bankrupt the company.” What happened – or didn’t happen, in June: changing the rules or (not) making payment?
Friday December 11th 2020, 5:42 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for all the comments. Each of us has slightly different interpretations regarding what is best and that is as it should be.

By the way, Jeff, I try to steer clear of terms like "lazy writing," which I find to be too judgemental. Even though there are some sentences that don't work as well as others, I try to pass no judgement on the writer's state of mind when they constructed them.
Sunday March 28th, 9:11 AM
Comment by: Perry W. (Dunedin, FL)
Your next article should be "How to lose all credibility with one snide remark."

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