Over the years, I’ve worked up this checklist for my writing classes and my own rewriting. The ideas mainly come from Helen Sword, Steven Pinker, Jonathan Gottschall, and Joseph Williams. See the reference list below.
Ideally, we use these principles — not for first-drafting, but for revising.
Clarity — Make main actors subjects. Put important actions in verbs, helping readers read more easily.
- Find actors or actions hidden in zombie nouns or phrases.
- BAD: “Our lack of knowledge about local conditions precluded determination of committee action…” (Williams, 2014)
- GOOD: We knew nothing about local conditions, so we could not determine…
- Make ACTORS the subjects of sentences. Express the actor’s actions in active VERBS, that ideally show concrete, physical imagery.
- Diagnose. If it takes 7-8 words to get the the verb, then watch out for ZOMBIES.
- Find zombie nouns as subjects and late verbs–that come after 7-8 words. (Readers struggle with long, complicated, zombie subjects.)
- Analyze. Decide who the concrete actors are.
- Find the actions the actors do — often hidden in zombie nouns; change knowledge to know; determination to determine.
- Rewrite. If you hid actions in zombie nouns, put actions in active verbs.
- Make real or virtual actors the subject of verbs. Virtual actor = a short, concrete subject: Freedom, Taxation, etc.
- See below about passive constructions.
Push for Verbal Verve & Concrete Language; Avoid Prepositional Podge (Sword, 2016)
- “Favor strong, specific, robust action verbs (scrutinize, dissect, recount, capture) over weak, vague, lazy ones (have, do, show) (Sword, 2016).
- Favor concrete language over vague, abstract language. Put abstract ideas in concrete language. Show concept with examples.
- Limit the use of abstract, “spongy, sing-songy” zombie nouns. For example these nouns suck the life out of their verb-roots: “measurement, calculation, displacement and designation.”
- Avoid 3 strings of prepositional phrases: ““in a letter to the author of a book about birds” unless you [want] to [get] a specific rhetorical effect.”
- Do not interpose more than 12 words between the subject and its verb. Use a concrete subject and an active verb instead.
- “The possibility that the “man,” whose being seems so self-evident and whose nature provides the object of modern knowledge and the human sciences, will one day be erased as a figure in thought is precisely what…” That’s 31 between subject and verb (Sword, 2016).
- Let your concrete nouns and active verbs do the work of description, so use adjectives and adverbs only when they give new information.
Cohesion — Make the last part of a sentence set up the first part of the next.
- Underline the first 7-8 words in every sentence or the first 5-6 words of every clause.
- In most sentences, use subjects to name topics. (A topic is what the sentence is about).
- Make sure the topics are familiar to your readers.
- Follow coherence logic: Move in order from (1) old, shorter, familiar, simpler to (2) new, longer, unfamiliar, and complex.
- Use passive construction mainly to set up this coherence logic.
Emphasis — Move from simplicity to complexity; Move ideas you want to stress to the end.
- Trim the end of your sentence.
- Move functional or peripheral information left.
- Move new information to the right.
- Use syntax to move words to the stress place of emphasis — at the end… There is/are; Passives, What & It Shift, Not X, but Y…
Concision — Remove all unnecessary details.
- Cut words with little or no meaning. A
basicallydepends on B. >> A depends on B.
- Cut doubled words that repeat meanings. Do a full
and completerevision. >> Do a full revision.
- Cut words implied by other words. It’s
pasthistory. >> It’s history.
- Replace wordy phrases with a word. In a situation where… >> When…
- Change negatives to affirmatives. They are not the same. >> They are different.
- Cut useless adjectives and adverbs. Translate this
abstractidea into dailypractice.
Pulitzer Prize Winner, James A. Michener
I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.
Write in classic style.
- Write in this frame of mind: (A) Show the READER something in the world while (B) engaging the READER in a conversation.
- appropriate, use the pronoun “we” as it fits within the above frame. The pronoun “we” refers to the reader and writer in conversation.
- Direct the READER’s eyes to the characters or events in the real world.
- Hold the READER in conversation. Direct the READER’s gaze to something in the world.
Overcome the curse of knowledge — You CAN’T easily imagine that your READER doesn’t know what you know.
- If you know something well, you can’t remember how hard you worked to learn it.
- Imagine your reader looking over your shoulder.
- Read your text out loud, preferably to a real person. Have someone read it to you. Have your computer read it to you.
- Show a draft to yourself — after your work is no longer familiar.
- Avoid or reduce jargon, abbreviations, acronyms, and technical vocabulary.
- Write in concrete terms; show who did what to whom.
Create arcs of coherence.
- Start with an outline.
- Make a claim. Front the claim in the right place, near the start.
- Answer a question in your claim. Answer the “so what” question.
- Start analog. Make a physical outline, storyboard, or mind-map of your argument, using a large piece of paper or whiteboard.
- Write your ideas and topics freely on index chards. Then arrange the ideas in an order that fits.
- Decide on an ordering scheme. A hike. A hero in a battle. A mock debate. A court case. A journey.
- Use paragraph breaks as visual bookmarks. Don’t make monotonously long paragraphs.
- Keep paragraph topics clear, so the reader knows the topic.
- Make the point of paragraphs clear; make the “so what!” clear.
Weave story grammar into non-fiction.
- Stories serve as the best way to put information into the world.
- Remember basic story grammar: Character + Conflict + Attempted Extrication (Gottschall, 2012).
- Use a story “inciting incident” with a character who faces high stakes conflict to start a non-fiction piece.
- The inciting incident might come as a life or death, risky, dangerous, or trouble-filled situation.
- The character needs to extricate herself from it.
- Weave the whole story-push through the piece or use more than one story-push to make non-fiction more compelling.
The points about clarity, cohesion, emphasis,, and concision come from Williams (2014). The points about classic style, the curse of knowledge, and arcs of coherence come from Pinker (2014). The point about story grammar comes from Gottschall (2012). The ideas about verbal verve and concrete language come from Sword (2016).
- Gottschall, J. (2012). The storytelling animal: how stories make us human. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- Pinker, S. (2014). The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York: Viking Adult.
- Sword, H. (2016). The Writer’s Diet: A Guide to Fit Prose. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Williams, J. M., & Bizup, J. (2014). Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace (5 edition). Boston: Longman.