Given that I serve as an editor for a university publication, I have ample opportunity to read and polish some very talented writers’ work. But even they make mistakes, as we all do, and thus I’ve been working on a more detailed writing and style guide over the summer. Much of my advice is specific to the content and style quirks of the publication I edit, so I have chosen not to reproduce it below. However, I did feel that it could be helpful to share my general advice on avoiding some of the most common writing errors I see.
So, in no particular order…
- Mind your commas – As a general rule, insert a comma between two clauses that can stand alone. Also use them to offset introductory phrases (i.e., as a general rule) and the main body of a sentence. Finally, commas can be utilized to demarcate parts of a sentence that serve as an aside or might be omitted (more on this below). In cases like this, remember to use two commas, as it is often the case that the second comma gets left out. Ex. The minister, who strongly supported intervention, called on the legislature to approve deployments abroad.
- “Only commas” – Use commas to set off nouns that are the only ones of their kind in a sentence. Ex. America’s newest aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford, recently underwent sea trials. There is only one “newest” aircraft carrier. The reverse is also true. Ex. America’s nuclear-powered carrier USS Abraham Lincoln recently deployed to the Arabian Gulf. The U.S. has many nuclear-powered carriers; therefore, there is no need for a comma.
- Which vs. that – There is always a comma before “which” but not before “that.”
- Use nominalization when possible – Nominalization is the conversion of verbs into nouns without using a gerund. This is simply a higher form of writing that appears more precise. Ex. It accomplishes these goals in several ways, including through engagement (as opposed to engaging) with Islamic scholars.
- Don’t fear the passive voice – Yes, the style guide does admonish authors to avoid the passive voice when possible, and this is generally sound advice. However, passive constructions do serve a purpose when used judiciously (otherwise they’d never have been adopted). Use passive voice a) to adopt a more distant tone or b) to emphasize the object of an action.
- Avoid long paragraphs – As always, there are exceptions to this rule. But long paragraphs can become quite turgid and appear very intimidating. Breaking them up, therefore, can yield a punchier product that is more likely to keep readers engaged and reading.
- Cut, cut, cut – All first drafts are inefficient and overly verbose; set your piece aside for a day or two and then mercilessly cut out any unnecessary elements. This reduces fluff and increases information density (making it easier to meet the word count).