10 Tips to Tighten Your Writing

Whether you're a banking executive or a professional copywriter working at an ad agency, everyone needs to know how to write well these days. Here are 10 ways writers at any level can make their words count.

1. Kill the passive voice.

Many writers tend to think the passive voice sounds more formal. But the passive voice adds unnecessary words to your writing, and makes sentences more clunky. Using a more active voice results in writing that is more clean and crisp.

Original: The game was won by the Seattle Seahawks.
Better: The Seattle Seahawks won the game.

Original: This fact has been acknowledged by financial institutions around the world.
Better: Financial institutions around the world acknowledge this fact.

Original: We were starting to think about going in a new direction.
Better: We started thinking about going in a new direction.

2. Scratch “that.”

The word “that” is one of the most commonly abused words in the English language. Some grammarians say “that” appears unnecessarily in about 5% of all sentences. Very seldom is “that” actually needed to improve reader comprehension. Search your writing for instances of “that” and remove them.

Original: I decided that journalism was a good career for me.
Better: I decided journalism was a good career for me.

Original: The turkey sandwich that I ate yesterday had too much mayonnaise.
Better: The turkey sandwich I ate yesterday had too much mayonnaise.

3. Put your last paragraph first.

When we were growing up, English teachers taught us that you needed to write using this rigid structure:

  1. Introductory paragraph
  2. Supporting paragraph #1
  3. Supporting paragraph #2
  4. Supporting paragraph #3
  5. Closing paragraph

If you want to hold readers’ attention, your first few sentences need to pack a punch. But more often than not, a traditional introductory paragraph will be little more than a watered-down version of your closing paragraph. If you adhere to your sixth-grade teacher’s outline, your most powerful prose will almost certainly be found in your closing paragraph. So delete that introductory paragraph, and move your closing paragraph to the top. You don’t have to recap everything the reader just read in a closing paragraph just because your “teacher said so.” If you said what you need to say and the reader understood it, don’t repeat yourself.

Read More: 10 Tips For Killer Headlines

“I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”
— Blaise Pascal

4. Dump the extraneous.

Telling a story and expressing feelings may work well in fictional writing, but in a business context? No so much. All readers want is for you to get straight to the point. If you are really honest with yourself when proofing your writing, you will often find that you can delete almost everything except the last paragraph you wrote. It’s all too common for writers to pad their prose with stuffing — irrelevant backstory, unnecessary tangents, extraneous points. Again, similar to tip #3, your final paragraph might just be all you need to say.

Original: As you may have heard, we’ve had some issues keeping our inventory of printer paper stocked. I was just in the supply closet today and noticed that we are down to the last two reams of paper. I know you are just filling in for our receptionist Kathy while she is on vacation, but I was wondering if you would please order 20 more reams of printer paper for us.
Better: Would you please order 20 reams of printer paper before Kathy gets back and put them in the supply closet?

5. Keep it short.

Fewer paragraphs, fewer sentences, fewer words.

6. Assume readers know you are the speaker.

Some writers like to start sentences with phrases built around first-person pronouns, but you don’t need to constantly be reminding people that you are the author. The reader will automatically assume that all unattributed assertions in your writing are your opinions. As the author, everything you write is implicitly from your perspective. Eliminating first-person pronouns like I, me, mine, my, etc., will make your writing feel more objective and less about one person’s opinion.

Original: In my personal opinion, this is definitely the right way to go.
Better: This is definitely the right way to go.

Original: I believe that payday lenders are running amok.
Better: Payday lenders are running amok.

Original: In my experience, all financial institutions will benefit from having an onboarding program.
Better: All financial institutions will benefit from having an onboarding program.

7. Depersonalize your writing.

Building on #6 above, the use of any personal pronouns can make your writing sound confrontational, creating an unnecessarily antagonistic tone of “you vs. me.” It may take some work, but you should be able to eliminate (nearly) all personal pronouns from your writing, except in those instances where you are retelling a story from personal experience or offering advice to (“you”) the reader.

Original: I would like you to ask your team to do whatever it takes so that you can submit my project to me early Friday morning.
Better: Please do whatever it takes to complete this project early Friday morning.

Original: If you don’t pay my invoice by Friday, January 25th, I will forward your account to my collections agency who will add 25% to the amount you owe.
Better: This invoice must be paid by Friday, January 25th, or it will be forwarded to a collections agency who will add 25% to the amount owed.

This tip can be extremely valuable to managers who often have to ask their subordinates, vendors and even their bosses for something. Start by depersonalizing all your intra-office emails. The more contentious the request or relationship, the more success you’ll have if you strip out as many pronouns as possible. Re-read the original versions above, and you’ll see how each personal pronoun could come across as somewhere between snotty, self-righteous or a slap in the face.

Read More: The Key to Writing Bank Ads That Work

8. Kill commas.

If you want to keep your writing clean, crisp and accessible, reduce the number of phrases separated by commas. If you have more than two or three commas in a sentence (not counting commas used in a series), it’s time to start thinking about breaking your sentence into multiple sentences.

Original: I hope you will be able to attend, and if you need more information, please call or email me, and I will be glad to help.
Better: I hope you will be able to attend. If you need more information, please call or email me. I will be glad to help.

9. Reduce prepositional phrases.

People can clutter their writing by being overly dependent on prepositional phrases. But with just a little tinkering, you can tighten up your sentences so that you aren’t loading your prose with too many unnecessary prepositions.

Original: Their attempt to provide a justification for the expense was unsuccessful.
Better: Their attempt to justify the expense was unsuccessful.

Original: The watch was obviously designed by a master craftsman.
Better: A master craftsman had obviously designed the watch.

Sometimes prepositional phrases aren’t really necessary, especially when you use them to denote possession of an object instead of using an apostrophe + s.

Original: That was the opinion of the manager.
Better: That was the manager’s opinion.

Original: She was disturbed by the violent images in the movie.
Better: She was disturbed by the movie’s violent images.

Also, try to avoid using too many prepositional phrases in a single sentence, as they can obscure the main subject and action.

Original: The effect of such a range of references is to assure the audience of the author’s range of learning and intellect.
Better: The wide range of references assure the audience that the author is intelligent and well-read.

10. Use stronger verbs.

On occasion, you will want to write with a factual, straightforward style (e.g., when writing how-to technical manuals). But you will frequently want to engage readers, and that’s where zesty verbs will help. You should always be looking for opportunities to turn dry language into spicy statements, particularly when writing marketing content for consumers (e.g., social media, blog posts, newsletter articles/headlines, etc.).

Original: Why Google, Apple and Facebook Should Concern Banks
Better: Why Google, Apple and Facebook Will Terrify Banks

Original: It was difficult watching the Packers lose so badly to the Bears.
Better: Packers fans were devastated by their team’s crushing defeat to the Bears.

Original: Consumers Overwhelmingly Prefer Using Mobile Devices to Check Their Account Balances
Better: People Love to Check Account Balances on Their Mobile Phones

Bonus: Dealing with percentages.

If you work in the financial industry, you’re using numbers in your communications all day, every day. Only stuffy grammarians will tell you that you must write the word “percent” out. It really isn’t necessary, especially in informal and semi-formal situations (e.g., emails, direct mail pieces, newsletters, even white papers). In fact, this style “rule” is a dated carryover from ancient times when typewriters didn’t include special characters like the % symbol. But a % symbol can be found on every keyboard made in America for the last 40 years, and everyone knows what it means. It’s more efficient for the writer and more intuitive for the reader to use “40%” than “40 percent.” About the only instance where you may feel obligated to stick with the crustier “40 percent” is in your ultra-formal documents like annual reports.

Remember, your first priority as a writer is communication — the clear articulation of an idea. Adhering to arcane grammar rules can interfere with that objective. Starting a sentence off with a complex number written out in words is less comprehensible than “breaking the rules” of grammar. Seriously, which sentence is easier for you to read?

Original: Sixty-seven-and-a-half percent of respondents said some grammar rules are downright silly.
Better: 67.5% of respondents said some grammar rules are downright silly.

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