Self-editing: 10 ways to tighten your copy

December 13, 2010 · 75 comments

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The difference between a mediocre writer and an excellent writer often comes down to whether you can tighten your own copy. Eliminating unnecessary words makes every story cleaner, easier to follow and all-around professional.

I’ve long enjoyed editing, which is why I’ve edited friends’ chapters, resumes, graduate school application essays and cover letters throughout the years. And since my new job includes editing, I’m now tearing apart improving other writers’ copy on a daily basis. I love tightening their work and making it better!

Too often, I see writers fail to cut unnecessary words. Don’t get me wrong, it’s okay to include them in a first draft. But when you read over what you’ve written, when you go through the oh-so-important process of self-editing, you should look to eliminate words you don’t truly need.

So watch for these 10 words and phrases as you edit your work. Get rid of them, and your copy will shine:

1. In order to. You never need it. If you’re going to the kitchen in order to make a sandwich… Your sentence could be tighter. Because you’re really going to the kitchen to make a sandwich. That “in order to” makes it take a millisecond longer to arrive at the meaty part of the sentence, which means your story is dragging more than it needs to. Whenever you see “in order to” in your copy, get rid of it. No questions asked.

2. Start to. Did you start to walk the dog, or did you walk the dog? Is the car starting to roll down the hill, or is it rolling down the hill? “Start to” is a more difficult phrase to deal with than “in order to,” because sometimes you do need it. But more likely than not, you don’t. Rather than making “start” the active verb, use the verb that’s actually more active — like walking or rolling — to tell your story.

This plagued me while writing my book; I made the “start to” mistake again and again. But once I knew to look for it during revisions, I was able to correct it. (Hint: If this is a problem for you, try using Word’s search function to look for “start.” You’ll catch each one, so you can evaluate them individually.)

3. There are. Never start a sentence with “There are…” There’s almost always a better way to phrase it. Oh, except sometimes “there are” or “there’s” works, like how I just used it. Here’s an example that doesn’t work: There are hundreds of men in Africa who want me to be their wife. How it should read: Hundreds of African men want me to be their wife.

If this one stumps you, try getting rid of “There are” and starting the sentence with the next word, then modifying the rest of the phrase to make it work. (For example, here I eliminated “who” to make the rest of the sentence work.) “There are” makes your sentences sound boring and, quite frankly, like they were written by a beginner. Start with a word that actually helps you tell the story. That way, you’re not only tightening, you’re also adding sentence variation, which makes every piece more interesting to read.

4. That. In about five percent of your sentences (total guess from the grammar police), “that” makes your idea easier to understand. In the other 95 percent, get rid of it! “I decided that journalism was a good career for me” reads better as “I decided journalism was a good career for me.” Extra word! Nix!

6. Currently. Currently is my pet peeve. Yes, I realize that having a grammar pet peeve makes me a huge dork, and I’m okay with that. Currently is always redundant. You never need it.You’re not currently working for a law firm, you are working for a law firm. If you’re working there, it’s obviously currently.

The only time I can see this word and not groan is when the writer gives us information about the past, and then uses “currently” to transition to now. “I used to work for the mayor, but I’m currently working for the president.” Except you know what would sound better? Using “now” instead. “I used to work for the mayor, but now I work for the president.” So I guess there’s never a time when “currently” doesn’t make me groan. Because even when you need a transition word, “now” works better.

7. Very. This is a very difficult one to remember. I almost never get it right, until I go back through my copy, and the word jumps out at me, and then I change the sentence to “This is a difficult one to remember.” Because really, how much is that “very” helping you get your point across? It doesn’t make the task sound more difficult. Same thing with “really.” It’s not a “really” difficult tip to remember. It’s simply a difficult tip to remember. Got it?

8. Thing. Usually when we write “thing” or “things,” it’s because we were too lazy to think of a better word. In every day life, we may ask for “that thing over there,” but in your writing, calling anything a “thing” does not help your reader. I come across this at work sometimes because I often want to title blog posts, “Things to Consider When Doing This or That.” But I can almost always rephrase it in a way that tells the reader more about what I’m offering. Try to replace all “thing” or “things” with a more descriptive word.

9. Make. This is sometimes used in the same way as “start to,” in place of what could be a stronger verb. For example, when I first titled this post, I wrote “10 ways to make your copy stronger.” That was fine for a first draft; it got my point across. But when I re-read it, I realized the verb wasn’t strong. I’d used “make” as the verb, when it doesn’t tell the reader much at all. So I changed the title to “10 ways to strengthen your copy.” Eventually I realized “tighten” was an even better verb. But the real improvement came when I stopped using “make” to tell my story, and instead used another verb that could do the job better.

10. Passive Voice. As this UNC handout explains, using the passive voice isn’t really wrong. But whenever you have the chances to make your writing clearer, you should do it — and avoiding the passive voice is one of those instances. I know the passive voice when I see it, but I’m bad at explaining it, so I’m going to leave that to Grammar Girl. Explaining grammar is her specialty.

Do you notice any of these problems in your copy? What words do you look to eliminate when you’re self-editing?

Update: A reader kindly pointed out that I somehow failed to include a #5. Which just goes to show you that no matter how much you focus on self-editing, you can’t catch everything yourself!

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{ 61 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrea James December 13, 2010 at 7:55 am

THIS IS AN AWESOME POST!

Thank you thank you thank you. You’ve done the blog community a great service by sharing these.

I’m going to blog it and link to it.
Andrea James recently posted…Suffering by numbersMy Profile

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Katie December 13, 2010 at 9:34 am

Great tips! “That” and “in order to” are on my list of pet peeves for sure, as is the passive voice. Thanks for sharing!
Katie recently posted…list 49- things i tend to put offMy Profile

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Mike Snyder December 13, 2010 at 11:17 am

Just for grins I went through the first part of your post to give you a taste of your own medicine. Words you could eliminate: First graf: “all-around.” 3rd graf: “I see” (you wouldn’t be telling us about this if you hadn’t seen it) and “truly” (modifier adds little meaning, a la “very”). 8th graf: “Quite” (see previous example. “Frankly” would suffice.) Moral of story: Even good editors need editors when they are writers. I probably used needless words in this comment.

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Alexis Grant December 13, 2010 at 11:19 am

You are a veteran word-cutter! If only I had an editor for this blog… You’re right, we ALL need one!

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Albert The Student Loan CPA May 8, 2012 at 3:25 pm

I don’t have an editor for my blog, but I have an “Executive Editor”. He reads all my posts (eventually) and tells me what he thinks of them. He has a degree and masters in Communication, and has the game of words down pat. Actually, he’s been coaching me on writing since 2010 and I’ve gone from writing once a month, to once a week, and just last week I hit a break through and have written more than one article per day on several days.

I’m just saying this to point out that retrospective review also helps. Over time we came up with a “review checklist” that contained the characteristics of my best work. Of course…reading other articles by Alexis (e.g. titles) helps too!

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Kim Kircher December 13, 2010 at 11:39 am

Alexis,
Thanks for this great list. I often use the “search and destroy (replace)” function in Word to look for unwanted words, such as quite/very/currently. Tight sentences bring clarity and zip to writing.
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Karie Price December 13, 2010 at 11:59 am

What a great list! I’m a new writer – venturing into blogging while I work on an ebook or two – and LOVE these quick and easy things that I can check in my own writing. I bet if I looked back at my blog posts to-date I have broken many of these rules. LOL

Thanks for sharing these and for helping us all to get better minus one word at a time!
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Lanham True December 13, 2010 at 12:23 pm

When I revise my work, I’m always amazed to see *that* I use *that* word so sickeningly often. Thanks for the reminder!

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Anna Foden December 13, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Great tips Alexis! Thanks. I’m very, very bad about using very.
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Bob December 13, 2010 at 2:24 pm

Thank you for these pointers. ;) One phrase I see online frequently is “The other day I was…” or “A few days ago…” etc. It’s like “thing” – just a lazy way to start a post.
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Marianne December 13, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Overuse of ‘that’ is my worst crime, but I find all of these in my work every time I edit.

Great post! Thanks Alexis.
Marianne recently posted…Practicing what I preachMy Profile

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Andi December 13, 2010 at 8:20 pm

Such helpful info!!! I LOVE editing too. :)
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Patricia Stoltey December 14, 2010 at 6:03 pm

This is a really good post, Alexis. I have a laundry list of habit words I do searches on during my final editing phase, words such as: pretty, really, just, some, back, and down. They’re always in that first draft, no matter how hard I try to avoid them.
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Rebecca December 16, 2010 at 8:47 pm

Great article, thanks for sharing these tips! I have lots of bad habits so will refer to this post in future to make my writing snappier!

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Terri December 17, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Great post. I will go back through my work with this list in mind. Thanks!

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Chris December 20, 2010 at 9:59 am

Good post, Alexis. It’s always good to remind us about cutting the extraneous words in a story. I have a huge checklist I go through when I’m editing my work, including many of your ten. My big pet peeve at the moment is getting rid of ‘it’ in my prose. What a lazy word! Much like ‘thing’. I’ve also decided I use too many ‘wells’, ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ in dialogue. To me, using those words is tantamount to telling my reader, “I’m not quite sure what my characters should be saying at the moment, but if you bear with me, I’ll figure it out.”

I’m also not a big fan of ‘just’, ‘first’, ‘even’, and starting sentences with ‘And’ and ‘But’. Sometimes one needs to use those words, but most often they are just tacked on.

Cheers,
Chris
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Sharron Clemons December 21, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Great post. I will go back through my work with this list in mind. Thanks!

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Angie December 22, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Loved this post! I am guilty of several on the first go. I am most guilty of not fixing the Passive voice. I mean, really! :-) I’m working on it – sometimes I want to keep it, though. One question, though. What is number five? I decided to write the tips out in long hand and five is missing. You don’t need to post this. But I would like to know about # 5. I am a subscriber and get tons from your blog and all the wonderful links you pass. Thanks so much! I don’t know how you are managing it all these days. the best to you in everything! Angie

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Donna February 22, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Great post, Alexis! Removing these small words make a BIG difference. I’m getting much better at editing these out. My first drafts are always so conversational and inadvertently include these no-nos. I am so much more aware of this now. Twitter has been a big help in consolidating my words–I’ve heard that from other writers as well. The “that” crutch is my new favorite pet peeve to look for in my writing (I just edited out the word ‘own’ in this sentence in fact – just my writing works!). Eliminating the extra words as well as adding clearer words makes such a difference. Thanks for writing this and reminding us all. I’m still editing my memoir – I’ve always felt I was a good story-teller. I’m finally getting away from some of those mechanical crutches!

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Dana Brown April 9, 2011 at 12:16 am

Are you too young to remember Marlo Thomas in the sitcom THAT GIRL? Her character was dating a magazine writer and she tried her hand at an article that paid per word. She found if she added the word “that” she could make more money!

I was perusing your blog for memoir posts but selected this post instead since I have been given my first editing job this weekend. It is 93 pages on making soap. Guess I’m in for some good clean fun!

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Ted Nelson April 29, 2011 at 1:25 am

All awesome tips. I am going to re-read my latest post and see if I can clean it up a little more. Thanks!
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Sienna Mynx April 30, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Awesome tips. I just sent this out to my writer friends. I really appreciate the insight to the little ‘no-no’s. Great!

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Charisma Knight May 5, 2011 at 10:58 pm

Hi Alexis, thank you so much for this!

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Meena Vathyam May 6, 2011 at 1:55 am

Great Post ! Now I have a big problem with commas – not quite the same as redundant words like very, truly, that. But what would suggest for punctuation editing ?

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Lynn Hobbs May 6, 2011 at 8:31 pm

I have a problem with ‘as’ and have to watch out for using it too often.
Great post, enjoyed it!

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Julie Musil May 12, 2011 at 12:00 pm

This post deserves a bookmark! Thanks so much. Yes, I use too many that’s, very’s, and, and, and….
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Shane Arthur May 12, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Hello Alexis.

I found your site through one of Sean Platt’s tweets. Good thing, because I can’t get enough of “tighten the flab” posts. Flab cutting is an addiction of mine.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to share a link with your audience where they can find 100 more examples. http://editinghacks.com/hack-the-flab/

Regards,
Shane

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Kelly May 12, 2011 at 4:39 pm

I remember someone suggesting any time you want to use the word “very,” insert the word “damn.” You’ll quickly see how unnecessary it is. Great tips!

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Alexis Grant May 12, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Ha — Love this!

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David May 13, 2011 at 11:48 am

I think Mark Twain said this.

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Grant May 12, 2011 at 6:50 pm

Great tips Alexis. And they came at a good time, reminding me as I complete my 35th book not to get complacent and look out for those pesty words!

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David Williams May 13, 2011 at 8:30 am

Number 5 was a killer. Serously, the post is great, and I’ll certainly retweet.
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Jessica May 13, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Thanks for this post! May I add my personal pet peeves (Yes, I’m a dork too) from editing broadcast copy:

“Some say…” HUGE no. Who says it? If there’s no attribution, did you make it up? This phrase makes an opinion that may just be held by that one person you interviewed (or the handful or however many) seem like it’s a widely-held thought. Cut.

“In an effort to”: always redundant.

Also: repeating constructions. My personal one is “but,” which I keep an eye out for now.

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Kim May 15, 2011 at 11:08 pm

This is amazing! Now I’m sort of blushing… err…. I mean, I’m blushing thinking about how many times I’ve probably started a sentence with “there are.”

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Shelly Brown May 18, 2011 at 4:59 pm

No, number five?!?! That just cracks me up!
Your tips are fabulous but I just can’t stop laughing about leaving out the number five. That is SO something I would do!!!
Actually all these things are something I would do. So thanks again for the fabu tips.

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Sam June 8, 2011 at 10:36 am

“In terms of.” Explain why people use “in terms of.” They use it as a filler or a transition or just because saying “in terms of” makes them sound what? Je ne sais quoi. “There are” sentence beginnings are taboo in my writing classes. A waste of two words. Use a subject and a verb.

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Marian Schembari February 27, 2012 at 8:46 pm

I need you to know that – once again – I’m using this post while editing heaps of copy. This is seriously one of the best and easiest to use references I’ve ever come across on tightening my work.

Nicely done my friend :)

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Alexis Grant February 29, 2012 at 9:52 am

Yay!

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Sandy February 29, 2012 at 9:55 am

“on a daily basis”
“in terms of”
“at this point in time”

All three are my editing pet peeves.

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Dawn Napier April 13, 2012 at 11:04 pm

“Suddenly” is my Kryptonite. I write suspense and horror, so events often happen suddenly, but it’s not a word that needs to exist. If there’s a vampire leaping out at my hero, I don’t need to point out that it’s happening suddenly.
Hee hee, and I just changed the word “things” to “events.” She can be taught!

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Alexis Grant May 10, 2012 at 9:10 am

So true! Great one to add.

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Cheryl Simpson May 5, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Thank you for this post. I need this kick to keep my writing tighter.

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Lisa May 10, 2012 at 9:03 am

Came across your blog today. Really like your posts – great information. I recently started blogging and can definitely use all of your tips. I printed them out and will use them every time I write.

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Candace Dempsey May 31, 2012 at 2:43 pm

Nice checklist. I personally hate smallish, darkish, etc. Restaurant reviewers use these terms all the time. The ish is never necessary.

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Shuni Vashti June 1, 2012 at 10:14 am

I should stick a list of these 10 words next to my computer. Without looking back at my writings, I know I have been using ALL of them. Your explanation is very… ooops, down to earth, easy to grasp. I agree to all, except for “very”. As a reader, to me it would make a difference in my imagination when a writer writes “It was hot in Brunei.” and “It was very hot in Brunei.” If he says “very hot”, I imagine sweat dripping along his face. Same thing with “really”. No, I don’t really get it.

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Bobbi June 3, 2012 at 6:05 am

Great post!
That is the word I misuse the most.
I like the idea of sticking a list next to my computer to remind me. I’m certain I could add many more words to the list

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hala June 14, 2012 at 3:18 pm

AMAZING.
Hope that was tight enough ;)

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Varadh July 3, 2012 at 1:44 am

Good post. I use this as a check-list with every post. However I try, 2-3 such words sneak in and I apply this to nix them out. Hope you come out with a dictionary of such words or at least a few more posts as sequels with such word cautions to edit and make our posts better. Kudos. Look forward to more.
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Syera July 9, 2012 at 5:56 pm

“Needless to say” is a phrase that needs to die. If it’s needless to say, don’t say it! If you need to say it, don’t preface it with “needless to say!”

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Christina Williams August 17, 2012 at 11:13 pm

Thanks. This website will help me out when I start writing for my college’s newspaper again.

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Oli Lewington September 4, 2012 at 4:27 am

I love how concise all these comments are now!

Hemingway was the master of concise copy. Read and learn from him.
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Belinda Callin September 5, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Great list! I currently have a problem with #6 that I would have never noticed. Thanks! ;)

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Maitreya September 19, 2012 at 1:31 am

Great post Alexis! Most articles of this type blindly repeat the same old nonsense about modifiers, redundant phrases, grammar, punctuation etc., but it’s very (yes- – I will use “very” here, thank you very much) refreshing to see some practical tips that go beyond mundane advice and can actually help improve writing style, rather than just be a rehash of what a toad could find via a google search (and then write an article on).
Thanks!

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Robinsh September 26, 2012 at 10:22 pm

I came here from the copyblogger and got a lot of valuable information about solving the grammatical errors what is really a kind of close friend of mine.

Thanks for your contribution !!
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Lisa September 27, 2012 at 4:25 pm

I find that you can always make your writing tighter by taking out the word “and” when combining two sentences that would be stronger if they stood alone. I do this so often, and so do a lot of the people I edit for. (See! Wouldn’t it sound better if I just said “I do this so often. So do a lot of other people I edit for.”) Somehow it just sounds better to me. =P

I’m not a culprit, but I hate when people reverse periods and quotation marks. For example, “Bobby said he was the best kid ever”. The period goes inside the quote, not after it. Just looks neater.

I hate “very,” especially when people are using it to describe “unique.” Good call on that one!

I’m going to bookmark this post for future reference when I’m trying to explain how it makes your writing sound better. =P

Thanks for that!

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Willi Morris January 17, 2013 at 6:03 pm

Hahahah I love that you forgot a number 5. These are great tips. I think I mess up on these a LOT. I will use this as a checklist before I publish my next blog post!
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Grace Burrowes June 23, 2013 at 9:25 pm

My favorite transgression these days is overuse of verbs of vision. Glanced, studied, saw, watched, perused, regarded, stared, eyed, gazed, looked, surveyed, blah, blah, blah. Firstly, they are WEAK. For the character to park on the reader’s mental big screen and do a lot of “watching” just doesn’t create a dynamic scene. Secondly, they’re often filter words. She watched as he lifted her hand to his lips.
Oh, fer cryin’ inna bucket, he lifted her hand to his lips, already.
Thanks for this check list.
The struggle never ends.

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Fergus April 29, 2014 at 5:13 am

I often find that Americans try to simplify passive voice to much, It’s almost as if they’re allergic to it. My ‘Word’ sniped at my every use until I turned the damned grammar-check off.

‘He was hit by a passing car,’ reads so much better than,
‘a passing car hit him.’
‘Her golden moment was witnessed by only a few strangers,’ is better than
‘only a few strangers witnessed her golden moment.’

So my own feeling is that the ‘subject’ is always the important factor, and not just who or what is active – the ‘passing car’ and ‘few strangers’ are relatively unimportant to who got hit, or what they witnessed.

Try that as a guideline.

F.C.

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Jhon June 5, 2014 at 2:22 am

I am just going to write a guest content for ‘brazencareerist’ and thought I should read a bit more before putting my fingers on the keys. I don’t know, you might be editing my copy ha ha :)
It’s a great read, by the way. As a writer, I’ve been struggling with those editorial-blunders.

Thanks, thank you very much for pointing out :)
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Lori Parr June 24, 2014 at 12:47 pm

I just wrote a blog for a company, and had to take out 300 words to fit their word count. I typically write like this and can feel when I’ve reached a certain word count, say like a thousand words. I often do this at night before bed. In the morning, when I’m fresh I edit. Its my own version of “Write drunk, edit sober” / Write tired, edit fresh! Here’s what I found thus morning.

Different tenses in the same paragragh
I changed ordinary words to shorter exciting words
Redundancy/over-explaining, using the same word more than once in a paragraph.

Boom! 300 words gone.

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Greg Peckford November 20, 2014 at 1:23 pm

This post is amazing. I went through each step with one of my posts and hit on almost every one. I will be using this as a guide when editing all my posts from now on.
Thanks for this!

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