Thorough research, solid organization and proper tone are all important factors in what makes good writing great, but sometimes the devil really is in the details. While a positive rating from a client is a definite win, it doesn’t mean that you’re writing is perfect.
Many clients aren’t well versed in the ins and outs of commas and em dashes, and even a client who doesn’t require pristine copy may still value tight, powerful writing. Improving your writing lets you exceed rather than just meet client expectations and helps you land higher-paying gigs, and these three advanced style and grammar tips are a great place to start.
1. Excise expletives
No, we’re not talking about those words. When it comes to grammar, an expletive is anything that doesn’t add value to the copy. Common examples are:
- it is important that
- in my opinion
- there is
- there are
- it is
Expletives aren’t inherently bad, and most of the time, they don’t present an actual mechanical error, but they are fluff. They can also weaken your overall sentence structure and make the main idea less powerful. Consider the following examples:
- Okay: It is important that all children learn a second language.
- Better: All children should learn a second language.
In this case, deleting the expletive tightens the writing and brings the point of the sentence to the forefront.
- Okay: There are three main section to an article. They are the introduction, body, and conclusion.
- Better: The introduction, body, and conclusion are the three main sections of an article.
Here, removing the expletive and replacing it with the specific information lets us combine the two sentences and get right to the main idea.
An expletive here or there is fine — and sometimes even good if you’re working on something like irreverent marketing copy — but in most cases, you’ll do better to keep your copy tight and your word count down.
2. Accentuate active voice
If you’ve been working in content marketing long, chances are you’ve heard of active and passive voice, but what is the difference really? Active voice is when the subject of the sentence is performing the action, and passive voice is when the action is done to the subject. This sounds more complicated than it really is, so let’s look at some examples:
- Passive: The oil was changed by the mechanic.
- Active: The mechanic changed the oil.
- Passive: Demolishing the bridge is being considered by the township.
- Active: The township is considering demolishing the bridge.
- Passive: The article has been accepted.
- Active: The client accepted the article.
Passive voice isn’t an actual grammar error, but as you can probably tell from the examples above, it does usually lead to clunky sentence structure and using more words than you really need. However, there are some instances when passive voice is the better choice, such as when the person doing the action is less important than the action itself. An example of this might be if you’re writing about a research study’s methods.
3. Nix the “not only … but also”
It’s not uncommon for writers to use this sentence structure when they’re trying to sound more formal, but it rarely works. First, it’s complicated to get right grammatically. Here’s an example:
- Incorrect: This microwave not only heats food to perfection, but also has an included crisper pan.
So what is the problem here? First, the comma is incorrect. In this case, “but” isn’t acting as a coordinating conjunction because the second clause is not independent (meaning it doesn’t have a standalone subject and verb). If you want to use the comma, you need to make both clauses independent:
- Technically correct: This microwave not only heats food to perfection, but it also has an included crisper pan.
But this is still very fluffy. The above example has 16 words. We can make this tighter, smoother copy by swapping the not only/but also construction out for the positive:
- Best: This microwave heats food to perfection and includes a crisper pan.
Same ideas but only 11 words. Five words may not seem like a lot, and you’re right, but the tighter copy it makes is the difference between great copy and just good enough.
What grammar tips and style changes have made the most difference in your writing?