Friday, January 25, 2013

iPhones and the Art of Writing Simply

Consider this sentence:

    In order to make a determination regarding whether negotiations should be entered into at this point in time, an evaluation of benefits and detriments was made.  

         If your brain turned off after the fourth or fifth word, it’s not because you’re not a lawyer.  Or, if you are a lawyer, it’s not because you’re not a smart lawyer.  It’s because it’s a terrible sentence.  Try this one instead:

To decide whether to negotiate now, we weighed the pluses and minuses. 

         The second sentence says the same thing as the first, but using 12 words instead of 26.  And the 12 words are simpler and clearer.  This applies to other types of writing too.  Compare my poorly-written version of a sentence from Joy Fielding’s The Wild Zone (see page 113 of Pocket Books paperback edition) to the real thing:

    At that very moment, she made an identification of the vehicle as the automobile she’d been followed by the night before, which vehicle she’d made the assumption was owned by the detective who had been hired by her husband.

    She’d recognized the car immediately as the one that had tailed her the night before, the one she’d assumed belonged to a detective hired by her husband.   

In both pairs of examples, the second sentence is easier to understand and more likely to keep the reader’s attention.  That matters to me no matter what I’m writing.  In law or for business, I usually write to explain something to someone – whether it’s a client, a colleague or a judge – or to persuade someone to see things my way.  It’s harder to do either if I make the reader struggle to understand me or, worse yet, to stay awake.  When I write fiction, obviously I want and need to capture and keep the reader’s attention.  Excessive words bog down a story and can bury the even most exciting plot twists and characters.

Simplifying my writing also allows me to cover more ground.  In my law practice, I’m usually bound by a page limit.  If my sentences are twice as long as they need to be, that means I can make only half the arguments or must cut some of the examples or cases that support those arguments.  And even if I don’t need my whole page limit, I’d rather send a court or a client a well-written 7-page document than a cumbersome 15-page one.  In fiction, clearer, cleaner sentences allow me more space to develop character, advance the plot, or describe the setting.  For these reasons, over half my writing time is spent cutting.  (I’m not alone in this – the saying “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter” has been attributed to many people, including Voltaire and Mark Twain.)

         Writing more simply sounds, well, simple, and it is when comparing two sentences the way I did above.  Looking at an entire manuscript, though, can be daunting.  So I’ve tried to break down some points I look for when editing.

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Get rid of words you don’t need:  Lawyers in particular love unnecessary words, I suspect because we spent a lot of money to go to law school and we want to sound like it.  “Attached hereto is the aforementioned contract” sounds like something a lawyer would write.  On the other hand, “the contract is attached” is just plain English.  One place to spot words you can cut is in prepositional phrases.  In the sample sentences, I changed “in order to” to “to.”  Similarly, “at this point in time” became “now” and “at that very moment” changed to “immediately.”  Using the Find function in Word to search for prepositions, especially “of,” “at” and “to,” is a great way to discover phrases you can simplify.  Read each phrase and ask yourself how you might say it in one word or, at most, two.

Don’t just be -- do:  Another way to make writing sharper is to write in active rather than passive voice.  Active voice:  “her husband hired a detective.  Passive voice:  “A detective was hired by her husband.”  “We evaluated” (active); “an evaluation was made” (passive).  Active voice shortens sentences and makes them easier to read and understand.  It also keeps the focus on the actor.  If you won an award or a race, don’t you want people to know you won it?  And be excited about it?  “I won the race” sounds a lot more exciting than “A race was won” or even “A race was won by me.”  Of course, sometimes you want to be anonymous.  In his 1987 State of the Union speech, President Reagan didn’t say he’d made mistakes regarding the Iran-Contra scandal, he said “serious mistakes were made…."  Who made them?  Perhaps no one will focus on that.  Another time for passive voice is when you use it to emphasize the object of the sentence.  For instance, if you and your friend have loved every book that won an Edgar Award, and you want to persuade your friend to read a particular writer, you might say, “An Edgar Award was won by this writer.”  The point is “wow, an Edgar Award, that writer must be amazing.”  Yet another reason to use passive voice is when you don’t know who performed an action:  “A tower had been built in the village” might be the only way you can frame a sentence if you don’t know who built the tower.  Short of a good reason to use passive voice, however, phrase all your sentences in active voice and see how much more compelling it makes your writing.  You can find passive voice by searching for the “to be” words -- was, were, is, are.  The word “by” also often signals passive voice (think “was followed by” or “was loved by” or “was won by”.

Trade nouns for verbs:  I also look for instances where I can substitute a verb for a noun phrase.  The phrase “enter into negotiations” is an example of what I call a noun phrase – it uses the noun “negotiations” as part of a phrase that conveys an action.  But one verb – negotiate – can say the same thing.  Similarly, above, the verb “assumed” replaced the noun phrase “made the assumption.”  As with minimizing passive voice, this type of editing not only eliminates words, it makes the sentences more active and interesting.  While doing this, you can replace a noun not only with a verb, but with a stronger verb or a verb that’s more commonly used or easier to read.  “I talked with Beth” flows better than “I had a conversation with Beth” or even “I conversed with Beth.”  Similarly, “I had an argument with Beth,” might become “I fought with Beth.” 

Trade verbs for better verbs:  Replacing a verb plus an adverb with a stronger verb also helps writing clip along.  A few examples:  Walked swiftly: hurried.  Walked casually: strolled.  Laughed nervously: tittered.  You get the idea.  Find the adverbs by searching “ly”.  Also, even if the “to be” words aren’t part of a phrase that’s in passive voice, consider replacing them with a more interesting verb.  “I felt sad” conveys stronger emotion than “I was sad.”  “I grieved” sounds even more vivid.

         According to the book I’m reading about Steve Jobs, he always focused on simplicity in his designs.  I see this when I compare using my iPhone to using my Blackberry.  The Blackberry had all kinds of icons for different functions, but after six years I only knew how to do two things on it – call and email.  I hesitated to switch to an iPhone because I couldn’t imagine what else I’d do with it.  Within two months of owning one, I used it as my daily alarm clock, back up GPS, radio station, oven timer, weather channel, and Internet browser.  And, oh yes, I call and email with it.  So borrow a page from the mobile wars and don’t clutter your writing with words that take up space and seem too cumbersome to figure out.  Instead, have some fun and write the iPhone version of a legal brief, novel or business letter. 

         If you’d like to share your own tips for editing, if you disagree with mine, or if you want to ask a writing or editing question, please do so below.

Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you'd like to be notified of new releases and read reviews of M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller) books and movies, click here to join her email list and receive free a short horror story, Ninevah, published exclusively to M.O.S.T. subscribers.


  1. What are your views on: 1. use of the serial comma; 2. use of one space instead of two after periods; and 3. liberal use of adverbs throughout a document

    1. I'm neutral on the serial comma (for those not familiar with it, it's the comma before the conjunction: "I went shopping with my dad, my sister, and my brother" versus "I went shopping with my dad, my sister and my brother). I tend to include it in formal writing, though my view is either way is correct, so long as it's consistent throughout the document. I still like two spaces after the period, but I grew up with typewriters. A lot of websites automatically switch two spaces to one now, as Blogger does in comments. Also, my law clerk tells me some legal writing professors now say one space is proper. The use of adverbs is a stylistic question. I try to use them sparingly becuase I like that type of writing. (John Sandford is my favorite writer style-wise.) But there are many writers, including of thrillers (think Pat Conroy), who write beautifully and often use adverbs. The only time I feel an adverb amounts to weak writing is where it seems lazy -- that is, in the situation I noted in my post where a stronger verb works better than the verb plus adverb.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  2. This is exactly what I teach my students point by point . . . except they don't listen! Sigh.

    Passive voice is a useful tactic when the writer wants to distance the actor from the action, i.e., "mistakes were made." Reagan did not want to take responsibility for his actions or the actions of his administration. Passive voice is similarly useful when representing a criminal defendant to distance him from the crime: "A gun was located on the premises," vs. "Defendant had a gun in his house."

    1. Yes, criminal law is a great example of when you'd want to use passive voice (if you represent the defendant). And definitely active if you represent the state.

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