The Joy of Rewriting: 5 Quick Style Boosters


Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

—Mark Twain

So, I can pretty much assume that if you’re like pretty much every other writer, you’re really likely to have very many stylistic tics that very often sneak into nearly everything you write.


Qualifiers, get lost. Let’s try that again, without the qualifiers.

You’re likely to have stylistic tics that sneak into your writing.

Elements_of_Style_cover  Eleven words instead of 33, just by eliminating qualifiers. I learned this rule when I was 16 and my father thrust Strunk & White: The Elements of Style into my hands. Read it ASAP. Buy a copy or read it online ( If you could only read one book about writing and rewriting, this is it.

Basically, the rules of style are: Cut the fat. Use the active voice. Get to the point.

Here’s how William Strunk puts it (and I don’t care if you read this in college, read it again and start applying it!):

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words. … This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Easier said than done! Vigorous writing takes practice. Here are 5 action steps that will immediately improve your style.

  1. Scan for needless words and delete them.
    1. Delete ALL qualifiers (such as really, pretty, very, sort of, kind of).
    2. Two or more adjectives in a row? Delete all but one, or choose a single better adjective. Or maybe kick out the remaining adjective while you’re at it, and substitute a stronger noun.
    3. Two or more adverbs in a row? Delete all but one, or choose a single better adverb. Or maybe kick out the remaining adverb while you’re at it, and substitute a stronger verb.
    4. Redundancies—anywhere you explain the same thing more than once, pick the best version and delete the other(s).
  2. Read your writing aloud.
    1. Every time you stumble on a word, revise.
    2. If it doesn’t roll off the tongue easily, it’s not smooth. You will feel anything that is awkwardly phrased.
    3. This will also help you catch and omit needless words.
  3. Look for clichés and delete or rewrite for a fresh image.
    1. The most common clichés are similes and metaphors: It went over like a lead balloon. My stomach was in knots. I got there in the nick of time. (Just what is a nick of time, anyway?)
    2. Ask yourself how much you need a description at that point. You may need to look at your content again to see how relevant it is.
    3. When in doubt, delete.
  4. Highlight your passive verbs. Change them to active verbs.
    1. The difference is whether the subject is performing the action or being acted upon.
    2. The bug was smashed against the windshield. The bug smashed against the windshield. Go for action whenever possible.
    3. Highlighting helps you see the culprits. Otherwise, they are easy to miss.
  5. Reduce your word count by a quarter. Or if you’re bold, cut it in half.
    1. The quickest style diet is reducing your word count. It forces you to keep only what is strictly necessary.
    2. If you’ve got a script, you’re also reducing time needed for delivery. Another approach, then, is to cut time. Five minutes long? Cut to 4 or 3 minutes.
    3. When I first started working at The Teaching Company, we had a strict limit for recording—the target was 30 minutes, with only a 30-second leeway. It was tough to hit, especially for professors used to delivering a 45-minute lecture. But shaving 15 minutes produced outstanding lectures!

Note: Revising for style takes place after you have revised to improve content and organization, so be sure to do that first. See my previous blog, “The Joy of Rewriting: 12 Questions to Ask on the First Pass.

Revising with just these four steps will infuse your writing with energy. As you practice them, you will naturally begin to improve your word choices and sentence structure as well. Before you know it, you’ll be using Strunk & White’s tips effortlessly. Your readers will be grateful.

Please post your comments. What tips do you have for revising for style that might help others? I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for joining me in this week’s blog. Tune in next Friday for Issue #13 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” We’ll return to delivery challenges.

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Headshot tight  About Marcy McDonald

Online Course Producer

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