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A list of quick checks on your writing

Below are some examples I've compiled from various books, instructors, and editors. I encourage you to use it as a checklist for your writing.


1. Have you buried your verbs? (diluted the action with weak verbs)
Poor: It was known to him.
Better: He knew it.

2. Do the verbs carry a strong image? (such as poke, pamper, and wheedle)
Poor: She looked beautiful.
Better: She dazzled him.

3. Are the verbs precise? (with no appended prepositions)
Poor: He stepped down.
Better: He resigned.


4. Have you used more than one noun? (one is more than enough)
Poor: They had money problems.
Better: They were broke.

5. Are the people missing in your writing? (this contributes to buried verbs)
Poor: There was anger.
Better: She got angry.


6. Have you used redundant adverbs? (such as sadly moped)
Poor: The horn blared loudly.
Better: The horn blared.


7. Is the concept already in the noun? (such as yellow daffodils)
Poor: They came to a precipitous cliff.
Better: They came to a cliff ... or ... They came to a precipice.

8. Are the adjectives doing work? (they should play an important role)
Poor: The sky mirrored her mood.
Better: The dark, wintry sky mirrored her mood.


9. Is the prose hedged with timidities? (such as kind of and very)
Poor: I sort of believe in myself.
Better: I believe in myself.


10. Have you used run-on sentences?
Poor: He was strong, he was brave, he never failed to show it.
Better: He was strong and brave. He never failed to show it.

11. Have you over-used exclamations? (let the words carry emphasis)
Poor: She screamed!
Better: She screamed.

12. Have you over-used colons? (use only for lists if possible)
Poor: He carried her luggage, which consisted of trunks, suitcases, and vanities.
Better: He carried her luggage: trunks, suitcases, and vanities.

13. Have you used semicolons only for dramatic pause?
Poor: He tasted her fruit and found it bitter.
Better: He tasted her fruit; he found it bitter.

14. Have you used dashes correctly?
Use an en-dash [–] if possible, otherwise use two short dashes with no spaces.
Example 1: Amplify a thought--pushing it with an explanation.
Example 2: Set aside a separate thought--like this--that is within a long sentence.


15. Have you avoided using I'd, he'd, we'd? (could mean had or would)
Poor: He'd come alive.
Better: He had come alive ... or ... He would come alive.

16. Have you invented new contractions? (ones not found in the dictionary)
Poor: C'mon, you can do it.
Better: Come on, you can do it.

17. Have you trusted your ear? (based on who is using the contraction)
Poor: "I'll try," said the Queen.
Better: "I shall try," said the Queen.

Mood Changes

18. Is "yet" used like "but"? (it means nevertheless)
Poor: He tried, but he failed.
Better: He tried, yet he failed.

19. Is "however" used early in the sentence? (but not at the beginning)
Poor: However, at times she knew she could.
Better: At times, however, she knew she could.


20. Have you used "that" instead of "which" in most cases?
Poor: And which he knew to be true.
Better: And that he knew to be true.

21. Is "which" used with a comma? (it qualifies the preceding clause)
Poor: They entered the house, that had no roof.
Better: They entered the house, which had no roof.


22. Have you unnecessarily exaggerated?
Poor: It looked like an atom bomb had gone off in the room.
Better: The room looked a mess.

23. Have you avoided cheap slang? (yet still used folk slang)
Poor: You see, he knew my ma.
Better: He knew my ma.

24. Have you avoided corny synonyms?
Poor: She asked the powers that be.
Better: She asked the officials.

25. Have you avoided sexism?
The use of sexism in writing can be particularly difficult to deal with.
Below are a few examples:

a. using patronizing words
Poor: She was an office girl.
Better: She worked in an office.

b. demeaning woman's roles
Poor: She became a great poetess.
Better: She became a great poet.

c. using words not used for men
Poor: A divorcee walked in.
Better: A divorced woman walked in.

d. implying second class status
Poor: She was a housewife.
Better: She worked in the home.

e. showing women as possessions
Poor: A settler with his wife passed through town.
Better: The pioneer couple passed through town.

f. using terms containing the word "man"
Poor: He was elected chairman of the committee.
Better: He was elected to chair the committee.

g. using "he" to mean both genders
Poor: When a person listens, he learns.
Better: When you listen, you learn.

Addressing the reader personally (you instead of he or him) is one way of
avoiding the "he" pronoun. Other methods are:

- Turning them plural
(readers, writers, critics, humorists, they)
- Using another pronoun
(we replaces he, our/the replaces his)
- Using "or"
(he or she, him or her)
- Converting nouns to verbs
(he spoke for them rather than he was the spokesman)

It is, however, important to use "he" when that's the only clean solution.

If you run through this checklist with each piece, you can successfully turn any original writing into something readable. Below are some additional suggestions that may help get you the rest of the way.


Let your lead capture the reader immediately.
Each sentence should nudge the reader along until hooked.
Give the end as much thought as the start, taking the reader slightly by surprise.
Allow the story to stop when it's ready to stop--its a question of feel.
Allow the reader to discover the humor or irony (let it sneak up).

Personal Performance

Believe in yourself and write from your heart.
Take risks and dare to be different.
Push yourself to excel, taking care with each word.


One note of caution about style: do not eliminate your particular style for the sake of brevity alone. Below is an example of how we might edit the beginning of a speech made by a famous American. Its as concise as the original, to the point, and flows well. Yet, it is sadly lacking in style. See if you can guess which speech it is, and it's true author ...

Eighty-seven years ago, our ancestors created a new government. They wanted a free society in which everyone had an equal voice.

Here is the original ...

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is a sparkling diamond of American oratory. Barely over two minutes long, Lincoln even stated in the speech that it would not be remembered ("The world will little note nor long remember what we say here"). Yet, the imagery he created, and his lyric style, turned it into an enduring classic. While you may not be an Abraham Lincoln, never turn from your particular style. Its what makes you unique.
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