5 Tips for Cleaning Up Your Writing Right Now

By Mark Nichol

Here are five quantitative quick tips about improving your writing functionally, before you even get into improving the quality of your prose:

1. Always Use Serial Commas

The policy of preceding every item in a list but the last one with a comma is commonsensical (read a previous article about the serial comma). Confusion is possible when you don’t and highly unlikely when you do. What if, using a non-serial-comma style, you write about more than two things when one of the things consists of more than one part or ingredient? (“The choices are roast beef, turkey, and ham and cheese.”) Do you insert a serial comma for clarity (and introduce an inconsistency) or leave the sentence as is for readers to stumble on? Adherence to serial-comma style eliminates the dilemma.

2. Minimize Capitalization

Job titles are capitalized only before names. Names of academic majors aren’t capitalized unless they are already proper nouns, like names of languages (“English”) or references to regions (“Asian studies”). Generic names of entities (“the hospital,” “the organization,” and so on) are lowercased. Yes, capitalization is a minefield; when in doubt, look it up, and search on this site for “capitalization” for many articles on the topic (including this one).

3. Repair Comma Splices

A comma alone cannot separate two independent clauses in a sentence. Break the clauses into distinct sentences, or separate them with a semicolon or an em dash — or a comma and a conjunction (and, or, and so on) — but not with a comma alone. For more information on this topic read 5 Ways to Fix the Comma Splice.

4. Omit Extraneous Hyphens, and Insert Necessary Ones

“Decision making,” “problem solving,” and similar compound nouns require no hyphen, unless they precede a noun as a compound modifier (“decision-making procedure,” “problem-solving aptitude”). “Near collision” and other similar constructions don’t, either, with the same exception (“near-collision statistics”). Established compound modifiers usually don’t require a hyphen even before a noun (“high school student”). Confused? Here’s a simple rule: Look it up. (And check out this DailyWritingTips article and find others on the topic by searching on the site for “hyphens.”)

5. Limit Displays of Emphasis

Words can be italicized to indicate that they are being used to refer to themselves, not the things they stand for (“Note the word emphasis”), or to signal a foreign term (“Wunderbar” means “wonderful”), or to make sure the reader understands that something is really important. Words can be initial-capped to indicate irony or other humorous intent. (“The rent-a-cop exuded the air of an Authority Figure.”) Boldface is appropriate for introducing new vocabulary or otherwise calling attention to an unfamiliar term but is best limited to textbooks and guidebooks. But all-caps are invariably excessive, “scare quotes” are seldom necessary, and be judicious about otherwise calling attention to words and phrases. You can read a previous article on this post titled How to Add Emphasis to Your Writing.

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13 Responses to “5 Tips for Cleaning Up Your Writing Right Now”

  • Oliver Lawrence

    Not serial commas, again. The serial comma can be wrong, people! It can sometimes make the second item in the list look like an appositive for the first.

    “I love my father, Elvis, and God.”

    That could easily be read as implying that Elvis is my father.

  • Paul M

    I’m unclear about your comment Oliver, are you saying that your example “I love my father, Elvis, and God.” is wrong.
    If so, how else would you write it.

  • Demosthenes

    This sentence could be written “I live God, Elvis, and my father.”

  • Demosthenes

    Oops again. Interesting typo. Make that “love” not “live.”

  • David L Rattigan

    Always using the serial comma is like always wearing a coat in case it rains.

  • Nick

    I have a question concerning #2 in the context of sci-fi/fanatasy. If I have alien races, should I capitalize their race name? For example, Xarr comes from planet Blob, so he is a Blobian. To use a published example, Jar-Jar comes from Naboo, and he is a Gungan. But we come from Earth and we’re humans/earthlings.

    I generally think: Be consistent whatever you choose. But are there rules for this kind of thing?

  • Mark Nichol

    Nick:

    That’s an interesting question. A common conceit of science fiction is that any extraterrestrial race technologically advanced enough to make contact with the inhabitants of Earth must have a one-world government, and therefore they will refer to themselves by their name for their planet (or humans will refer to them by the human name for it, as with, for example, “Centaurans”).

    As other writers have done, George Lucas diverged from that tradition by assuming that a planet could have more than one sentient species — hence, the Gungans of Naboo. (I don’t recall whether the humans of Naboo had their own moniker.)

    “Humans” is a mere description and is thus lowercased. “Earthlings” is derived from “Earth” and, like it, should be capitalized. Not everyone agrees with this distinction, but most writers do, so I guess you could call it a rule. (See also this Wikipedia article for alternate names for Earthlings.)

  • Rain

    Concerning number 5, I use italics for thinking and emphasis, single quotes to indicate that a word is referring to itself, and double quotes for dialogue. It seems much simpler to me than to use italics for self-referring words, seeing as italics are already used for so many other things. And, before anyone pounces on the thinking thing, I refuse to use quotes or double quotes for thinking because I always like to make it perfectly clear whether my characters are speaking out loud or not and adding “she said” after each phrase between double quotes makes the text look ridiculous.

    Examples:

    Thinking:
    Now that we have the right equipment, he thought, everything will be so much easier…

    Emphasis:
    What is your real name?

    Words referring to themselves:
    ‘Wunderbar’ means ‘wonderful’.

    Dialogue:
    “Come on,” she said. “You can’t expect me to believe that!”
    “Oh, I don’t expect you to.”

    Let me know what you think.

    Cheers.

    / Rain

  • Warsaw Will

    As most Brit have been taught not to use the serial comma, even though it is also called the ‘Oxford comma’, does this mean we are in a permanent state of confusion? There are obviously times when it is advisable or even necessary, but on the vast majority of occasions, there is absolutely no ambiguity. It’s purely a matter of style, custom and common sense.

  • Francis W. Porretto

    “Job titles are capitalized only before names.”

    Wrong. When a job title is used as an address — that is, in place of a name — it is properly capitalized. An example:

    “We can’t go on like this, Mr. Secretary-General.”
    “You are quite right, Madam Ambassador.”

    When a job title is used descriptively rather than as an address, it is not capitalized.

  • Mark Nichol

    Francis:

    You are correct; in the interest of omitting some details in these abbreviated tips, I passed over that exception, which I detail along with further discussion of capitalization in job titles in this post.

  • Bruce Kallick

    Dear Mark — I’m surprised that no one has remarked that your definition of serial commas is flawed: “The policy of preceding every item in a list but the last one with a comma…” should be “The policy of following every item…”

  • Meseret

    Hi
    I am taking college course English at community college. I have a problem writing the write grammar or sentence. I usually write my topic sentence or main idea, supporting detail, and miner detail. However, my main problem is after miner detail I make mistake. Could you help me please?

    Masero
    Thank you

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