Active-ate Your Verbs and Improve Your Writing

by Barbara McNichol

Before detecting the “passive” voice and addressing how to change it to “active,” consider why you should care.

Active verbs will improve your writing (most of the time) because:

  • Active verbs declare who or what is (or should be) performing the action; you avoid confusion, guesswork, or dodging responsibility.
  • Active verbs make your writing flow more easily; readers will more quickly get the ideas you want to convey.
  • Sentences constructed in the active voice usually require fewer words; you constantly want to aim to write concisely!

How to Identify “Passive”
As a reader, if you can’t identify the doer of the action—the subject—the sentence has likely been constructed in the passive voice. Even when the subject is clear, two clues help you identify “passive” use: 1) the word “by” and 2) variations of the verb “to be.”



Consider these sentences:
Passive—“The juicy watermelon was eaten by the boy.”
Active—“The boy chomped into the watermelon’s juicy belly.”

Passive—“Employees are seen by their managers as responsive and enthusiastic.”
Active—“Managers see their employees as responsive and enthusiastic.”

In addition, passive verbs can foster weasel-like communication. They might be used to hide who’s responsible for an action, thus evading accountability rather than declaring it. For example, if a contract states “the rules for the homeowners will be enforced” but doesn’t note who will enforce those rules, what’s the result? Ambiguity. Confusion. Inaction.

How to Identify “Active”
The pattern for an active sentence is typically “subject + verb + direct object.” The direct object is the recipient of the action—that is, what or whom the verb affects. Example: The employees (subject) implement (verb) the new strategy (object). Who’s doing the action of implementing the new strategy? The employees. Thus, it’s clear the employees are accountable for the action.

Your Turn
Notice the passive construction in the following sentence and rewrite it, making sure to use an active verb. (Hint: You’ll need to make up a subject.)

Passive: This policy is being implemented in an effort to streamline our process.
Active: ___________________________________

Use the clues I’ve provided to identify passive sentences you’ve written and revise them. Not sure if you rewrote one or more of them correctly? Share them with me via email, and I’ll provide feedback.

Best of Word Trippers 2014

by Barbara McNichol

If you don’t subscribe to my ezine Word Tripper of the Week, you’re missing out on a regular opportunity to sharpen your word use skills. You’ll find easy explanations of confusng word pairings such as “accept vs. except” and “affect vs. effect.”

Last year’s Word Trippers ezine included the pairs that follow, but that’s only a start! For the complete “Best of 2014″ List, email me at and I’ll send you the full PDF list of 25 pesky pairings featured in 2014.

Abstruse, obtuse – “Abstruse” means hard to understand, complex, or highly abstract. It stems from a Latin word meaning concealed or hidden and typically describes texts or arguments. “Obtuse” describes someone who is (or seems to be, based on behavior) not sharp in thinking, perception, or feeling; it can also refer to a remark, argument, or object that is dull or blunt.

“The teacher lost his students’ attention while describing abstruse philosophical topics to his class. He was too obtuse to notice their lack of participation.”


Afflict, inflict – Both words mean to cause pain, suffering, distress, or discomfort. “Afflict” with the preposition “with” usually describes an illness or condition. “Inflict” with the preposition “on” concentrates on the force with which the pain, suffering, distress, or discomfort is administered.

“He did not intend to inflict shame on his friend with his calloused remark. It would later afflict him with a deep sense of remorse.”


Anticipate, predict – “Anticipate” means to think of something that could happen in the future; to expect or look ahead to something with pleasure. “Predict” means to declare or indicate in advance; to foretell based on observation, experience, or scientific reason.

“It’s easy to predict the youngsters will have a tough time sleeping as they anticipate their trip to Disneyland.”


Archetype, prototype – Derived from the Latin term “typus” meaning image, the nouns “archetype” and “prototype” both relate to an original pattern or model. Each prefix establishes the distinction. “Arch” refers to the most accomplished or high ranking of something; “proto” primarily refers to a standard configuration, or an initial model or version of something. Thus, “archetype” has come to mean an ideal example while “prototype” is an unrefined version of something that’s expected to evolve.

“With her perfect GPA, inspiring extracurricular activity, and impressive athletic accomplishments, she’s the archetype of a great student and possibly a prototype for a successful entrepreneur.”


Request the whole list with Best of Word Trippers in subject line. When you do, I’ll automatically subscribe you to the bimonthly ezine so you won’t miss out in the future. Enjoy!

Then tell me which ones were most helpful or most surprising to you. Comment here.

P.S.You can order the print version of Word Trippers 2nd edition by clicking on this link.

Word Play: Lots More Figures of Speech

What’s a figure of speech? Words taken out of their literal meaning to create a vivid or dramatic picture. Play with them in your writing!


Matching or repetition of consonants or repeating of the same letter (or sound) at the beginning of words. Examples: Papa’s potatoes and poultry were a big hit at the potluck. Dewdrops danced on the Day Lilies’ tongue.


Aphorisms are short, pointed sentences expressing a wise or clever observation or a general truth. A good time to keep your mouth shut is when you’re in deep water. If you don’t have a sense of humor, you probably don’t have any sense at all. There are no new sins; the old ones just get more publicity.


A sentence that reads forward and backward like a mirror, often used in speeches in an artistic, persuasive way. Example: Ask not what you can do for your country but what your country can do for you.


Colloquialisms are informal expressions (slang) that play a role in how we communicate, but shouldn’t be used in formal speech or writing (unless it’s dialogue). Examples: Gonna and wanna. There ain’t nothin’ to it. He done good.


“Proper names that have become improper and uncommonly common.” That’s how author Willard R. Espy described eponyms, which are words coined after people’s names.

Byronic: One who is melancholic, passionate, melodramatic, and disregards societal norms. Named after poet Lord Byron (1788-1824) who displayed these characteristics as did his poetry.

Orwellian: Of or relating to a totalitarian state in which citizens’ activities are tightly controlled. Named after George Orwell, pen name of Eric Blair (1903-1950), whose novel Nineteen Eighty-Four depicted a futuristic totalitarian state.

Draconian: Unusually harsh. Named after Draco (late 7th century BCE), Athenian legislator, noted for the harshness of his code of laws.


These are words that are spelled the same but differ in pronunciation. Examples: Close – (CLOZE) to shut; (CLOHSS) nearby Lead – (LEED) to guide; (LED) a metallic element Tear – (TARE) to rip; (TEER) a drop of the clear liquid emitted by the eye

Homonyms and Homophones

Homonyms are spelled the same but differ in meaning while homophones are pronounced the same but differ in meaning, origin, and sometimes spelling. Examples of homonyms: Bank (a place to deposit money) and bank (a river’s edge) Fair (county fair), fair (reasonable), fair (in appearance as fair-skinned) Examples of homophones: Cite (to quote as an authority or example), sight (to see), site (location or place) Sea (body of water) and see (vision)


This figure of speech adds exaggeration to your writing. Hyperbole (hy-PER-buh-lee) statements are not literally true but are used for emphasis. Examples of hyperbole: Her feet were as big as skis. I’m so hungry I could eat a horse. I’ve heard that joke a thousand times.


Named after Richard Sheridan’s character Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals, malapropisms are a comic misuse of language (akin to Word Trippers but not the same). Examples of malapropisms: He had to use a fire distinguisher. Dad says the monster is just a pigment of my imagination. My sister has extra-century perception.


A metaphor lets us use one image to conjure up another. Overused metaphors are considered clichés. Examples of metaphors: You are my sunshine. All the world’s a stage. The thick blanket of snow covered the frozen field. These three metaphors about life were recently featured in one of my all-time favorite ezines, Dr. Mardy’s Quotes of the Week.

“Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.” – Truman Capote

“Life is a great big canvas, and you should throw all the paint on it you can.” – Danny Kaye

“Life is the art of drawing without an eraser.” – John W. Gardner


An oxymoron takes two incongruous or contradictory terms and puts them together to express two contrasting qualities in one concept. Examples of oxymora: Old news; Dull roar; Open secret; Random order


A word, phrase, verse, or sentence that reads the same backward or forward. Examples of palindromes: Straw – warts Do geese see God? Never odd or even


A pangram uses all 26 letters of the alphabet. Examples of pangrams: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. Watch Jeopardy! Alex Trebek’s fun TV quiz game.


A figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected; it causes the reader to reframe or reinterpret the first part. It’s how you add “funny” to your writing! Examples:

“Where there’s a will, I want to be in it.”

“A friend in need is a friend I don’t need.” – Deepak Jhangiani

“Honesty is the best policy until the policy expires.” – Deepak Jhangiani

“You can lead a horse to water…but if you can teach him to roll over on his back and backstroke, you got something.” – Rudy Cluke

“If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.”

“War does not determine who is right – only who is left.” “Women will never be equal to men until they can walk down the street with a bald head and a beer gut, and still think they are sexy.”


A figure of speech that gives “human” characteristics (emotion, honesty, volition, etc.) to an animal, object, or idea. Examples of Personification: The haughty peacock strutted around his mate. Fate frowned on her success. My car was happy to be washed.


Pleonasm consists of two concepts (usually two words) that are redundant. Examples of pleonasms: boiling hot, cash money, dark night, empty hole, little baby, pair of twins


Makes a comparison using “as” or “like” to show how two things that are not alike in most ways are similar in another way. Examples of similes: Busy as a beaver. Mad as a wet hen. The snow was as thick as a down blanket.


Words or phrases in which letters or syllables get swapped. Examples of spoonerisms: I’m driving in the right lane, for I’m driving in a light rain.

Tease my ears, for Ease my tears.

Wave the sails, for Save the whales. 


7 Writing Mistakes Editors are Constantly Fixing

By Barbara McNichol

What can editors tell writers about improving their writing before they even begin the editing process? I shared my ideas and examples on a recent teleclass hosted by Janice Campbell of NAIWE.

You can listen to the full hour of “fixes” I presented by dialing dial 1-218-844-3182 and enter Recording ID: 90075555

In the meantime, here’s a summary:

Mistake #1.      Being so self-absorbed as a writer that you’re unaware of the reader’s experience. The fix? Know your core message and write to that message, leaving out the experience of writing.

Mistake #2.      Addressing readers as readers rather than a single key person whose interest you want to capture with your message. The fix? Keep a single interested person in your target audience top of mind as you write.

Mistake #3.      Skimming the surface, not going deep enough. The fix? When describing an experience, explain what you felt, what the other person felt as best you can, and what exact words were spoken. Go deeper with the details.

Mistake #4.      Having no rhyme or reason to the order of the paragraphs. The fix? Make a conscious decision about the order based on logic and facilitating your readers’ comprehension.

Mistake #5.      Overusing weak verbs and throwing in extraneous phrases and wobbly words. The fix? Rewrite using active verbs; question use of every adjective and adverb; throw out wobbly words: really, very, much, some that.  “I Really Think That We Should Not Use Some Words Very Much.”

Mistake #6.      Using multiword noun phrases when one active verb will do. The fix? Whenever possible, get an active verb to do the “work.”

Mistake #7.      Writing sentences that ramble (on and on and on and on). The fix? Limit sentences to 15-21 words max but vary sentence length.

Bonus mistake: Mixing metaphors and flat-out choosing the wrong word. The fix? Use a word choice guide like Word Trippers to help you select the perfect word when it really matters.

About Barbara McNichol

Authors and experts depend on Barbara for her expert editing of nonfiction books, articles, and marketing materials. On her website, she proudly lists close to 200 books she’s edited. Her mission is to teach writers techniques that will improve their writing—and make the final editing process go smoother and faster. As part of this mission, Barbara sends out a monthly ezine called Add Power to Your Pen. When you sign up for it, you’ll receive “10 Top Techniques for Improving Your Writing.” She’s also written Word Trippers: The Ultimate Source for Using the Perfect Word When It Really Matters, available at as a Kindle and a print book.

2012 – A Great Year for Writing Your Nonfiction Book

by Barbara McNichol

Did you develop a plan or even start crafting your book in 2011?

If so, congratulations! If not, you have a clean slate in this new year—a fresh opportunity to share your expertise with the world!

Look at 2012 as a fresh start to attract more opportunities and build more connections through the increased exposure a book gives you.  As you do, go for these eight Book-Writing Resolutions for 2012 to help fulfill your dream of being an author—and all that it brings you—in this wonderful new year.

1. I will devote a significant amount of time to planning how I’ll write and/or promote my book in 2012.

2. I will look for interesting, unique ways to craft my chapters. I want them to be informative, intelligent, and fun to read.

3. I will put into place new ways to promote my book, perhaps even before it’s been produced (e.g., turn parts of chapters into blog posts, use social media to draw attention to them). 

4. I will create an ezine and/or website to convey my book’s concepts, build a list of interested people, and communicate regularly with those who can benefit from my message. 

5. I will stop procrastinating! When I’m tempted to put off working on my book, I’ll remind myself of the reputation-building value a professional book brings to my business. It will help me engage with my prospects, gain exposure to my market, demonstrate my expertise, and land new opportunities.

6. I will not let lack of time or dislike of writing stop me. I have something valuable to say to the world, and I will put it out there in a quality way. Yes, I will set aside time to write, revise, and perfect my chapters and my marketing materials. 

7. I will ask for help to perfect my manuscript. Knowing there comes a time when I can’t read my own writing objectively, I ask for writing/editing assistance to polish it to a fine sheen. I’ll be alert to when that time is right.

8. I will do my best to choose the right word when it matters most—and not let grammar gremlins and wrong choices spoil the party.

What resolutions would you add to this list? Write your favorites in the comments section below. 

When it comes time for #7 and #8, allow me to assist you with my professional editing services and my ebook, Word Trippers in print at and now available as a Kindle ebook on Amazon.

If you don’t have a Kindle reader, you can download the software to your PC, Mac, Blackberry, and others. Here’s the link.

Grammar Glitches You Can’t Ignore

By Barbara McNichol

My attention was recently drawn to an article in Ragan Report (great resource for communicators) that puts the “Top 25 Grammar and Language Mistakes” in your face. Some, in fact, are Word Trippers that I include in my ebook.

This handful of grammar glitches stood out for me. I’m eager to point them out because they’re extremely important to good writing. I encourage you to take them to heart.

  • Using “could of,” “would of,” “should of.” These are all 100 percent wrong, born of our sloppy speaking styles—could’ve, would’ve, should’ve. What you want to write is could have, would have, should have. We all coulda, woulda, shoulda become better at grammar.
  • Using “me and somebody.” I tell my children that it’s common courtesy to put the other person first. Thus you should always say, “Fred and I went to the gym together,” or “Suzie and I saw that movie.”
  • Using “that” instead of “who” (and vice versa). If you’re writing about people, always use who. If a company president says, “employees that are affected by layoffs will be greatly missed,” no one is likely to believe him because he’s treating them as objects by using the word that.
  • Using “they” when referring to a business. “Starbucks said they would give everyone a free latte today.” Although this might sound right, the correct sentence is: “Starbucks said it would give everyone a free latte today.” And if that grates on your ears, then rewrite the sentence to avoid the problem: “Starbucks is offering everyone a free latte today.”

Want to peruse the whole article so you can learn from all 25 mistakes? Here’s the link.

Please share other grammar glitches that might trip you in the comments section below.

Telling Your Own Story: Expressing the Emotional “Why” Behind Your Book

by Barbara McNichol

Many thanks to Janice Campbell for inviting me and Andrea Beaulieu as guests on Nov 17 teleclass. If you’d like a quick review, here are point-form highlights. Or feel free to contact me for editing and Andrea for presentation coaching on how to tell your story from the page and from the stage.

Five Reasons to Tell Stories

(1) To ensure what you have to say rings true universally—and that happens when you’re able to craft your story from a deeper place in your being, and

(2) To get the opposite of calm—you add peaks and valleys, waves and storms into the writing so the manuscript isn’t boring!

(3) To connect us as human beings — our common experience. Stories of the way we work together, or live together. Things we experience together, whether that’s dealing something big like dealing with an illness, or celebratory like having a baby.

(4) To communicate our values — this is what matters to me. How we made a difference in someone’s life, walking 15 miles in the snow to get to school.

(5) To share a message, make a point — the moral of the story. Stories that provide hope or encouragement, you can do it — not giving up on a goal.

Story Sparkers

If you’re stuck on coming up with a great idea for a personal story, ask yourself these questions first:

Why did you write that very book you wrote or the one you’re writing now?

What gives you a sense of satisfaction about the book and its subject matter? I

What inspires you every day?

What do you feel most proud of as you wrote this book?

How do you know or imagine your book making a positive difference in someone else’s life

What is a treasured moment you carry in your pocket right now that could be turned in a meaningful story?

 Have you ever been badly hurt?

Have you ever been scared?

Have you ever laughed so hard you fell out of your chair, or peed your pants?

How did you learn to swim?

Did you ever play a practical joke? Have you ever had one played on you?

Have you ever done something you are proud of?

Have you ever been to a dangerous area?

When were you in a lot of trouble?

Who do you think of when I say, that person just drives me nuts! Why?

Elements of the Story Arc

  • Set the scene 
  • Describe the characters
  • Describe what happens/climax/series of events
  • Resolve the problem
  • Make a point that can apply to reader/listener

 Let us know if this teleclass and these points are helpful. How we can assist you in commiting to tell your own stories in a meaningful, engaging, inspirational way?



Writing and Editing: Wear Two Different Hats

Writing and Editing: Wear Two Different Hats

by Barbara McNichol

 Just as you’d wear a straw-brimmed hat in the sunshine and a rain cap in the pouring rain, remember the importance of wearing two different hats when you’re writing versus editing your nonfiction book.

One hat represents the creative process; the other deals with the critical process. Attempting to edit as you write can dampen your creativity, as I learned when working with an author recently. Because she was on a fast track to get her book printed, she had me editing the beginning chapters while she was still writing the middle and final chapters. She interrupted her writing flow to give me feedback on the chapters I’d sent back. It affected her ability to move forward smoothly with her final chapters, plus we had trouble keeping track of our progress. What frustration!

In retrospect, we needed to put on the brakes and say, “Each task—writing and editing— demands a separate and specific focus.” Here are three reasons why:

  • When editing your own work, your mind can fill in, correct, or overlook errors. It’s easy to miss things that should be corrected—like missing words and inconsistencies.
  • When you put a week or two between completing a draft and reviewing it, you break the link between what you thought you wrote and what you actually wrote.
  • Once a first draft is finished, if you rush in to evaluate it too quickly, you haven’t allowed your brain to “hang out in the shade and cool.” That’s when you mentally step back and “see” gaps in information, research, and logic. Taking a “big picture” look also enables you to see what fits and what doesn’t.

 What can you do to separate writing from editing even more? 

  • When you reread your work, reformat it by changing the font, margins, line spacing, and other elements so it tricks the mind and looks like a new document.
  • Keep wearing your creativity hat and go through each chapter asking these important questions:
  1. Is it complete from a content point of view? What’s missing?
  2. Have I included all the facts and stories I want to meet my objectives for this chapter?
  3. Can I take out any content that doesn’t fit?

 Once you have answered these satisfactorily, you’re ready for the critical process to take over. While wearing your editing hat, leave behind your content questions and look for the elements of good writing—style, grammar, spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and so on. And when you’re ready for feedback, call in an objective editor who can apply both the creative and critical process to perfecting your manuscript.

Whack Wordiness: Teleclass Handout

By Barbara McNichol for Words Matter Week, NAIWE, March 3, 2010 

As you revise, proofread, and finalize what you’ve written, whack all the extra words you can to sharpen your message in compelling ways.

Watch for the following opportunities to take away the bumps so your writing moves forward smoothly like a car accelerating on a on freeway.

 Aim to eliminate extraneous phrases such as:

  • “there is” and “there will be”

e.g., There will be many candidates who are already planning to move. Better: Many candidates may be already planning to move.

  • “It is all about”; “the fact of the matter is”; “the fact that”

e.g., The fact of the matter is that it’s unwise to go out carousing. Better: It’s unwise to go out carousing.

  • “in regards to”

e.g., There may be additional sites you should seek out in regards to your industry. Better:  Seek additional sites related to your industry.

  • “is going to”

e.g., He is going to be a key asset. Better: He will be a key asset.

  • “in order to”

e.g., Add key words in order to describe the new position. Better: Add key words to describe the new position.

  • is intended to, meant to, designed to”

e.g., Prescreening is intended to focus on key aspects of the position. Better: Prescreening focuses on key aspects of the position.

  •  “the reason why is that  . . .” (a simple “because” will suffice)

 Strunk and White, in their classic guide The Elements of Style, call such clutter “the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”

 Take out these wobbly words whenever you can:

  • some  “We rely on some long-standing methods.”much “Jobs posted on the internet reach a much larger audience.”very  “Get ready to do a very good job.”quite a few “It’s been quite a few days since we spoke.” Be specific; use a number.

that  “Find information that you can apply easily.”

 Note: The word that doesn’t substitute for who when referring to a human being. E.g., “. . .  a person that plays the piano” should be “a person who plays the piano.”

 Knock out redundancies such as:

    • end result
    • add more
    • tally up
    • future plan
    • absolute guarantee
    • actual experience
    • adhesive tape
    • alongside of
    • ask yourself
    • at the present time
    • spell out in detail
    • sum total
    • sworn affidavit
    • unexpected surprise
    • visible to the eye

Think of these extra words as layers of onion skin before you get to the usable part. Peel them from your writing. – Diana Booher, Booher’s Rules of Business Grammar

 Replace phrases with single words where appropriate:

    • “a great number of” with “many”
    • “ahead of schedule” with “early”
    • “during the time that” with “while”
    • “give consideration to” with “consider”
    • “in spite of the fact that” with “although” 
  • Change nouns to verbs:
    • “the examination of” becomes “examine”
    • “reach a decision” becomes “decide”
    • “the transformation of” becomes “transform”
    • “the reorganization of” becomes “reorganize” 
  • Revise long-winded sentences:
    • Chop a long sentence into two – and make sure they both sound correct!
    • Combine thoughts and ideas when you can.
    • Question every single word – especially every adverb and adjective.
    • Take out the ones that don’t add to the meaning.  
  • Route out words that are inadvertently used twice:
    • “Following a process for hiring, we followed his techniques.”            Better:  “Following a process for hiring, we adopted his techniques.”
    • “Hoping for warm weather, we hoped to book our vacation in the south.” Better: “Hoping for warm weather, we booked our vacation in the south.” 
  • Let absolutes be absolute:         

e.g., Ever heard someone say “his bucket is emptier (or more empty) than mine”? How can something be emptier than empty? The same holds true for all absolute words. Drop the “less” or “more” in front of these: 

    • perfect
    • unique
    • equal
    • final
    • first
    • last
  • Get rid of tag-ons to verbs: 
    • continue on
    • refer back to
    • grouped together
    • gathered together
    • open up
    • cancel out
    • first began
    • add together
    • link together

Stop Your Writing from Idling in Neutral

“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” – Elmore Leonard

 Avoid Writing a Run-On Sentence

What is it? A sentence that contains too many subjects and predicates . . . like running two independent clauses together without the benefit of a comma, a conjunction, or another type of “glue” such as a punctuation mark or connecting word.

E.g., “We received the package yesterday it arrived in the mail.”

E.g., “Now Hiring New Chicken Livers” (actually seen on a billboard!)

E.g., (You’ll find sentences that go on and on all around you.)

When is it time to start a new sentence so you don’t have a run-on collision?

Here’s a suggestion: Use your breath. Yes, that’s right. Allow one inhalation and one exhalation for sentence as you read it, either aloud or silently. If you run out of breath before the end, consider this sentence too long!

Shorten Lengthy Sentences

Does wordiness imply writing only short sentences? No. The length of your sentence depends on what you want to say, and naturally some ideas take more words to express than others.

Still, head in the direction of “concise” rather than “verbose.” Just like you don’t want to spend much time with people who are verbose—they talk on and on and on—your readers don’t want to hang out with verbosity in your writing. 

Why? Too-long sentences tend to drag readers into complacency. They also demand a good memory. Readers have to hold onto the concept in the first part of the sentence. Then they have to wade through all the fluff to finally reach the connecting point at the end of the sentence. 

Rule of Thumb: No sentence should be longer 21 words and shorter if possible. It’s just difficult to keep track of the sentence’s core idea if it’s longer than that. Note: the longest sentence in the paragraph above is 21 words. Whew! 

Whack Wordiness Example: Editing this 44-word sentence (#1) brought it down to 21 words (#2) – that’s 50 percent! 

#1 - The subsequent chapters then will focus in great detail on each of the steps to make sure you know how to accomplish each step before proceeding to the next step and how to measure whether or not you are ready to move to the next step. (46 words) 

#2 - The subsequent chapters detail all 13 steps and show how to accomplish each one while measuring whether you are ready to move on. (23 words)


Dig out a page or two of your own writing and pick the longest paragraph. Count the number of words in that paragraph and rewrite it completely. As you do, look for ways to:

  • Eliminate extraneous phrases
  • Take out wobbly words
  • Knock out redundancies
  • Replace phrases with single words
  • Change nouns to verbs
  • Revise long-winded sentences
  • Route out repeated words
  • Let absolutes be absolute
  • Get rid of tag-ons to verbs 

You want your writing to move forward in drive, not idle in neutral, meander off course, or ramble. So don’t stop until you’ve ruthlessly reduced the number of words in your sentence. Aim for paring it down by 33 percent or more. Be succinct!   

How to Stop Rambling

“Make every word work like a galley slave.” – William Zinsser

 Rambling often stems from muddy thinking—that is, not having a clear idea of what you want to say. When analyzing a piece of your writing that rambles on, ask, “Exactly what was I trying to say?” 

Challenge yourself to state its purpose in one simple sentence. Then once you have your intended point in mind, ask:

  • Did I put in unnecessary facts on the road to making my point?
  • Did I add any phrases that were irrelevant to this point?
  • Did I keep in mind what readers might be asking as I make my point?
  • Do my sentences seem to jar like riding on a bumpy road?
  • Did I take a straight line to make my point or did I take unnecessary detours?  

Consider using this formula* to help keep your writing concise. Use no more than:

  • 5 paragraphs per page
  • 10 sentences per paragraph
  • 15 words per sentence
  • 3 syllables per word  

*Recommended in Don’t Let Your Participles Dangle in Public!


Step 1: Take one page of your writing, 300-400 words, and count the number of paragraphs. Fewer than 5?

 Step 2: In an average paragraph, count the number of sentences you have.

Fewer than 10?

 Step 3: Choose one paragraph and count the number of words in each sentence. What’s the average? Fewer than 15?

 Step 4: Now circle all the words on the page that have 4 syllables or more.

 Following these four steps, you now have lots of clues where to smooth out the potholes on the road.

Keep Your Writing Motor Running

“Writings are useless unless they are read, and they cannot be read unless they are readable.” – Theodore Roosevelt

One Thought, One Sentence

Unless you’re a novelist like William Faulkner, it’s best to express one thought in one sentence and end it. Spend another sentence on the next thought, and so on to keep your prose moving forward. 

When a sentence has too many ideas and runs on too long, it is called a run-on sentence. Actually, a run-on sentence really has TWO sentences (or thoughts) that have been INCORRECTLY combined into one. You can combine two sentences into one, but you must follow some rules to do it correctly. 

e.g., Mary loved traveling in Norway she thought it was cold. 

To correct this, use a punctuation mark, a bridge word, or separate the two thoughts completely.      

Mary loved traveling in Norway; she thought it was cold.

Mary loved traveling in Norway, but she thought it was cold.

Mary loved traveling in Norway. She thought it was cold.

Steer on the Sunny Side

It’s hard for readers to track what’s being written when it’s stated in a negative way. And most of the time, negative statements require a lot more words to make a point. Avoid using “no” and “not” except when you strongly want to emphasize or contrast something. 

Example #1

Negative: The answer doesn’t lie in not having enough people to do the job.

Better: The answer lies in hiring enough people to do the job.

 Example #2

Negative: We can’t incorporate all the design features we want without increasing the unit size.

Better: To provide all the design features we want, we increase the unit size.

 Build Bridges to Guide Your Reader

Since your goal is to whack wordiness, you may consider bridge words and phrases extraneous. Yet, the transitions from one sentence to another do keep your motor running and should be kept in high gear. Why? They create logical links that smooth the road like a well-maintained highway. 

Examples of bridge words that . . . 

  • connect two ideas of the same kind:   and, plus, as well as 
  • add another thought:    besides, also, then, again, secondly, etc. 
  • compare or contrast ideas:   but, still, however, yet, nevertheless,  
  • reinforce an idea:  indeed, in fact, of course, by all means    
  • show results:   as a result, consequently, thus, hence

Place Strongest Words at End

Whenever possible, place your most prominent words at the end of your sentence. Doing so provides emphasis and helps advance your writing from one new idea to the next.


Which ending phrase is more targeted and memorable? (The clue is in the italics.)

Statement #1

You’ll drive smoothly toward your destination of delivering a compelling message with your new ability to whack wordiness.

 Statement #2

With your new ability to whack wordiness, you’ll drive smoothly toward your destination of delivering a compelling message.

 Check out the Resources that follow.


 Booher, Dianna. Booher’s Rules of Business Grammar: 101 Fast and Easy Ways to Correct the Most Common Errors. McGraw Hill. 2009. 

DuPont, M. Kay. Don’t Let Your Participles Dangle in Public! Jedco Press. 3rd Edition. 2006. 

Fryxell, David A. Structure & Flow. Writer’s Digest Books. 1996. 

O’Connor, Patricia T. Woe Is I. Riverhead Books, 1996. 

Reddick, Karen L. Grammar Done Right! Hub House Publishing, 2009. 

Strunk, William Jr. and White, E.B. The Elements of Style. 3rd Edition. McMillan Publishing 1979. 

Ezine – Add Power to Your Pen

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 Word Choice Guide

Want a word choice guide that makes your writing easier? You can access 350+ pairs of confusing words (e.g., further vs. farther, advice vs. advise) in Word Trippers: The Ultimate Source for Choosing the Perfect Word When it Really Matters. Available as an ebook at for only $16.95.

Why Grammar Mistakes Proliferate: Don’t Writers Care?

Recently I learned what a hot topic grammatical errors can be when one of my favorite blogs, Article Writing and Marketing Insights from Ezine Articles, took a subject close to my heart and made it relevant to everyone who writes.
Within 24 hours of posting “Avoiding the (6) Common Grammatical Errors That Make Authors Look Du…Unprofessional,” the blog received 776 views and 93 comments. That’s evidence of how “hot” the topic of incorrect grammar can be!

The blog post started:
in these days of txting, iming and all low caps, its easy to take shortcuts to writing
However, even though we now use our keyboards as we once did our phones, what most people do not understand is how unprofessional the improper use of the English language can make an article, and its author, look. Look at the sentence above again. Does it look professionally written to you? 
Now, I’m not saying you need to go back to 9th grade English class and try and figure out where your participles are dangling, but making sure you have a command of the basics is essential.

The post went on to list six common errors that make authors look unprofessional. Five of them are what I call Word Trippers—a pair of similar words with different meanings and spellings that can trip people up: loose/lose, affect/effect, it’s/its, their/there, than/then. (The sixth addressed misuse of semicolons, something that riled writer Jeff Rubin so much, he established September 24 as National Punctuation Day.)

Among the blog comments, the most philosophic came from a subscriber named Jenny who wrote, “I am always amazed at how many who consider themselves writers make these mistakes — which are so easily avoided if one is paying attention. Personally, I think they just don’t care. Thanks for a provocative post that is a very good starting point in dealing with a problem that is unfortunately much bigger than those six examples!”

Do They Care?

As an editor who deals with mistakes like these in articles and manuscripts, I endorse Jenny’s observation that the problem is bigger than these six examples. But I challenge her statement, “I think they just don’t care.”

Rather, I see three factors at play here:

(1) People tend to write in a stream-of-consciousness manner, eager to get ideas down (that’s how I approach drafting of my ezine and the initial piece is downright sloppy). In this creative mode, fine tuning isn’t the first priority.

(2) “Instant messaging” is just that! People seem to be hurrying to move on to the next thing, feeling good about “getting that done” and prematurely declaring the piece complete. They don’t make sure what they’ve written comes across exactly the way they wanted to say it.

(3) Writers often lack the desire, discipline, or dedication to revisit their prose with a fresh eye, a clear mind, and breathing space to think it through.

Half-Baked Prose

I call the result of this propensity to write fast, move on, and never look back “half-baked.” After all, you wouldn’t eat a loaf of bread that’s half-baked. Why would you send out a written piece that isn’t fully “cooked” either?

The solution? Take time to put your writing “back in the oven” and question the key elements: the validity of the thoughts, the logical thread of persuasion, and the correct use of each word.

Yes, gremlins such as incorrect grammar and punctuation still get through unintentionally. So do unclear transitions and inexact word choice. Because of these, reviewing your written piece only once simply isn’t enough.

Three Steps to Perfection

I suggest if you habitually add these simple steps, you can “bake” your piece close to perfection:

(1) Print your piece and then go to another area to read it aloud as if a 10 year old needed to understand it. You’ll recognize unclear passages quickly that way.

(2) Question each word for its meaning, spelling, and role in the sentence, then take time to look up what you suspect isn’t correct. Don’t rely on memory alone; it can be shaky. Instead, access easy-to-use resources that will make your writing life easier.

(3) Revise, reread, revise, reread . . . until you’re satisfied.

Above all, slow down and think about your readers, be they 10 years old or 100. No one wants to eat half-baked bread, nor do they want to read partly polished prose. Flavor your writing until it’s “cooked” just right!

Barbara McNichol edits the gremlins out of nonfiction articles and books. She has created Word Trippers: The Ultimate Choice for Choosing the Right Word When It Really Matters as a resource that keeps writers on a professional path. Visit to sign up for her free Word Tripper of the Week ezine or contact her at 520-615-7910. Better yet, you can buy her Word Trippers – 350+ of these pesky pairings—as a Kindle e-book on Amazon. now a Kindle e-book on Amazon