Style is the third batch of tools in Your Writer’s Toolbox. Taking the time to give your words, your sentences, and, ultimately, your essay additional attention elevates the level of your writing. In this chapter you’ll learn some of the “tools of the trade” to give your writing flair, as well as language to avoid and tips for writing that grabs your readers’ attention.

Covered in This Chapter

  • Guidelines for stronger writing. Use precise vocabulary, active verbs, vivid examples, and active voice; avoid “to be” verbs and expletive sentences; be aware of connotation, coherence, and conciseness.
  • Giving your writing extra flair. Use similies, metaphors, and analogies.
  • Language to avoid. Watch out for wordiness, redundancy, clichés, and mixed metaphors.
  • Gender-free writing. Avoid sexism.
  • Twelve tips for compelling writing. Keep in mind some keys to interesting writing.

Guidelines for Stronger Writing

Strong writing, also referred to as a strong voice, not only enhances your effectiveness in conveying your message to your audience but also helps make you and your message more memorable. To maintain a strong voice in your writing, show your unique personality by choosing language that brings your ideas to life.

Use Precise Vocabulary

Vocabulary means the choice of words. Too often, people use the first word that comes to mind, and that word is either overused or not precise.

Vague: Our yoga instructor Lexa exhibits boundless energy.

This is sufficient, but it does not convey what you mean by energy.

Better: Lexa’s animation keeps us all upbeat.

This is more precise. An excellent text to improve your vocabulary is A Cure for the Common Word by K.D. Sullivan (McGraw-Hill, 2007).

Use Strong, Active Verbs

The strength of any sentence should be in the verbs you use. Verbs show action, and the more precise the verb, the better the readers see what’s happening.

Vague: The teacher walked into the classroom.

This conveys the information, but there’s no picture.

Better: The teacher strolled/hurried/ambled into the classroom.

If you replace walked with a more descriptive verb—strolled, hurried, or ambled, for example—the readers have a better picture.

Avoid “To Be” Verbs

A verb, by itself, is a part of speech. When referring to a verb, however, we use the infinitive (preceded with “to”). The verb “to be” is called irregular because it doesn’t follow the general rules for verbs and has these forms:


I am ——–> I was
You are ——–> You were
He/she/it is ——–> He/she/it was
We are ——–> We were
They are ——–> They were

Why do you need to know this? Most people use too many “to be” verbs in their writing. This presents a problem because the verbs show no action and, therefore, make the writing flat. For example:

I know a man who is very mysterious. (Isn’t very interesting.)

I know a mysterious man. (Much better, to the point.)

I know a man who seems mysterious. (“To be” verb is replaced, giving a slightly different—and more intriguing—meaning to the sentence.)

If you do no more to improve your writing than take out as many “to be” verbs as you can, you will immediately liven it up.

Avoid Expletive Sentences

An expletive sentence starts with one of the following:

  • There are
  • There is
  • There was
  • There were
  • It is
  • It was

When you begin a sentence with one of these, the sentence has two strikes against it. In each of these cases, the writer has used a form of the “to be” verb (are, is, was, were), which you now know should be avoided. Even more damaging, these phrases delay letting us know who or what the subject is, so you have to wait to even know who or what the writer is talking about.

There is a nice guy in my class. (boring)

I met a nice guy in my class. (better)

Again, if you alter these sentences, along with eliminating the “to be” verbs, you will have made giant steps in improving your writing.

Use Vivid Examples

The more you can engage your readers, the more likely it is that they will read on. If you can be exact, and get the readers involved, you will communicate better:

The little dog ate the doggie treat.

This may be clear, but it does not draw a striking picture.

The little brown-and-white cocker spaniel munched on the Milk Bone I gave her.

Much better. Now the readers can see more exactly what you see.

Be Aware of Connotation

Denotation is a word’s definition. When you go to the dictionary, you find the denotation of the word. Many words also have a connotation. Connota- tion means the emotional appeal the word has. If you tell your friend that she is skinny she may not take that as a compliment. But, if you tell her she’s slender you’ll get a much more positive reaction.

Not every word has a connotation, but using words with positive connotations can turn a negative reaction into a positive one. For example, if you call a man domineering, he may be offended, but if you call him strong or positive, he will be pleased. Many females object strongly to being called “girl.” To them it connotes someone not grown and not very forceful. So consider your audience and choose those words that will keep them interested and on your side.

Check for Coherence

If your readers cannot follow what you’re talking about, they probably won’t read on. So often, you know what you mean and have pieced it all together in your own mind, but you don’t manage to get the connections down in your writing. You may do something like this:

We went to Disneyland last weekend. Mother had to find her swim- suit. Dad got the car checked out. We left at 8:00 A.M. The trip took eight hours. We had a hard time finding a motel. We hadn’t made reservations.

This gives the information but in jumbled manner. It’s much better to say:

We decided to go to Disneyland this weekend. Dad got the car checked out to make sure we had no trouble on the way. We decided to leave at 8:00 A.M. since that would get us there in time to settle in. We didn’t make it at 8:00 because Mother couldn’t find her bathing suit, but we were delayed only an hour. On the road at last, we had a smooth trip. It got rocky, however, when my parents discovered neither had made a reservation. We were lucky. We found a motel, had dinner, and got ready for our big day.

Now the information has been expanded to a full developmental paragraph. The order is clear, and we can sense both the excitement and problems of the trip.

Be Concise

One danger that might arise as you’re trying to use vivid examples and add coherence to your writing is that you start writing too much. Most readers don’t have a lot of time and want you to make your point quickly and effectively.

Following is an excellent definition for concise writing from William Strunk Jr. in Elements of Style:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

In the following example, note that the wording in italics gives extra information, but instead of it giving additional value to the description, it actually distracts the reader from what the writer most wants to convey.

My sister and I awoke to Mom standing in the doorway to our room. It was 7 o’clock in the morning. She told us to gather together a few of the things most important to us. We started to think if we should pick our tea set, or our rock collection, or something else. We were moving to a small room at our grandmother’s house that day and probably would never come back to this house.

Giving Your Writing Extra Flair

The best writers use language that goes beyond what is accurate, or even helpful. As we’ve noted earlier, words and images should draw in your readers, get them involved, make them part of what you’re saying, and make them want to read more. Following are a few of the tools professional writers use – and you can, too.

One good way to communicate is by using figurative language or figures of speech. Such language paints pictures in readers’ minds, allowing them to see and understand a point more readily and clearly. Here are three devices you can use.

Similies use like, as if, or as though to make a clear comparison between two seemingly different things.

The frozen ocean stretched to the horizon like a white desert.

A metaphor expresses the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar.

His hawkish features intrigued me.

Analogies compare similar features of two dissimilar things; they explain something unfamiliar by relating it to something familiar.

Writing an essay can be compared to preparing to participate in a sport. You have to have the proper equipment, practice, and be prepared for problems. If you’re in great shape and well prepared, you will win.

Language to Avoid: Wordiness and Redundancy

Many writers are unaware of how “cluttered” writing can become. Wordiness and redundancy are two of the most common problems in writing, and they will lull your readers to sleep if left unchecked.

To avoid this issue, carefully review your essay for redundancies and wordiness. Check to see if there are ways to say things—just as effectively— in one or two words instead of six or seven. If there are words that do not add anything, remove them. The goal is to make every word count, so keep the words that enhance your message, and delete the ones that might dis- tract your readers.Following are a few examples of wordiness and redundancy, as well as suggested alternatives for each phrase.

Wordiness List

at this point ——-> now
in time in the field of  ——-> in
for the purpose of ——-> to
due to the fact that ——-> because
in the not too distant future ——-> soon
in view of the fact that ——-> since
in spite of the fact that ——-> although
fully cognizant of ——-> aware
enclosed herewith please find ——-> enclosed

Redundancy List

small in size ——-> small
join together ——-> join
advanced planning ——-> planning
assembled together ——-> assembled
cooperate together ——-> cooperate
rarely ever ——-> rarely
the present incumbent ——-> the incumbent
my personal choice ——-> my choice
return back ——-> return

Clichés and Mixed Metaphors

A cliché is an overused figure of speech, such as busy as a bee. We use clichés all the time, and many are useful as shorthand for familiar ideas. But if you use them to excess in your writing, readers are likely to conclude that what you are saying is not very new or interesting – or true.

Mixed metaphors use images that are inconsistent: All at once he was alone in this noisy hive with no place to roost. (Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities) Since bees don’t roost, hive and roost are inconsistent in this sentence.

Gender-Free Writing

Compound nouns containing man and men as an element have traditionally been used generically to refer to males and females alike:

  • Not for the average layman
  • Concerning all businessmen
  • Increase the number of man-hours
  • A new source of manpower

The generic use of such terms may be offensive to many people who feel that the masculine bias of these terms makes them unsuitable for reference to women as well as men. Therefore, avoid such terms whenever possible. Here are some suggested substitutes:

Instead of ——-> Try

mankind ——-> people
man ——-> person
manmade ——-> manufactured, constructed, synthetic
manpower ——-> workers, labor, human energy salesperson
salesman ——-> sales clerk, sales representative
fireman ——-> firefighter
waiter ——-> waitperson
foreman ——-> supervisor

Also avoid singular masculine pronouns:

  • Sexist: If an employee will be working with hazardous materials, he must complete the required safety courses.
  • Better: If an employee will be working with hazardous materials, he or she must complete the required safety courses.
  • Preferred: If employees will be working with hazardous materials, they must complete the required safety courses.

Twelve Tips for Compelling Writing

When writing, you have a lot to remember and consider. If you get to a point where you’re feeling overwhelmed, these 12 key tips will give you some guidance.

1. Be brief. Keep content—and titles—as short as possible to catch and hold readers’ attention.

2. Be specific. For powerful, precise communication, get right to the point and say just what you mean. Instead of “We had lots of homework this week,” say, “We had to read 60 pages of homework.”

3. Limit pronouns as sentence subjects. Where possible, use nouns as the subjects of sentences. It and they can be ambiguous. “The dog chased the cat. It ran very fast.” Which is the speedy one?

4. Use a variety of sentences. To make your essays more interesting, use a mixture of sentence types to vary your sentence structure and length.

5. Put important content first. The topic sentence sets up the content, and then the rest of the paragraph explains it.

6. Stick to a single topic. Try to discuss just one thing per paragraph.

7. Know and target your audience. Tailor your message to the knowledge and needs of your readers. Remember to define terms for those not familiar with them.

8. Address readers with “you.” Involve your readers by speaking to them directly. “When you plant a tree, you must water it.”

9. Make it active, not passive. Focus on who’s doing it, not on what’s done. Say “He called her,” not “She was called by him.” Unless the “doer” really doesn’t matter, you’ll save words and keep your readers awake.

10. Be respectful. Take care to avoid unintended insults and slights. Be alert to racial, ethnic, or gender bias in your words. “He or she” and “him or her” are here to stay. “They” and “their” (with a singular antecedent) are taking up residence, too.

11. Use positives, not negatives. Tell readers what they should do, not what they shouldn’t do. Say “Please be prompt” instead of “Don’t be late.” It’s powerful psychology—one stresses the desired outcome, the other its opposite.

12. Leave your readers satisfied. Ensure you have achieved your writing goal—to inform, to explain, or to persuade.