Characteristics of Good Writing
There are many characteristics of good writing. Five of the most important are parallel structure, conciseness, sentence variety, correct spelling and grammar, and effective paragraphing. They are discussed below.
Use parallel or consistent structure when writing sentences and paragraphs. For example, avoid mixing forms of verbs in the same sentence. If you use the -ing form of a verb in a list, use the -ing form for all verbs in the list. Similarly, avoid switching from active to passive voice in a series of clauses. When you read your sentences out loud, you should hear a rhythm being repeated--if something breaks the rhythm, check to see if you need to improve the sentence's parallel structure. The following sentences illustrate this concept:
Poor example: Mrs. Jones is trustworthy, dependable, and she pays close attention to details.
Improved: Mrs. Jones is trustworthy, dependable, and detail-oriented.
Poor example: Please keep track of your hours, turn in your timesheet, and keeping a copy for your records is also important.
Improved: Please keep track of your hours, turn in your timesheet, and keep a copy for your records.
Use parallel structure when formatting bulleted and numbered lists. For example, if you are listing skills on a résumé, don't switch from verbs to adjectives as the writer did in this poorly formatted list of skills:
- Pay close attention to details
- I am hard working
- I can type fast
Instead, use parallel formatting to construct your bulleted list:
- Hard worker
- Proficient typist
Note: When formatting bulleted and numbered lists, only use periods at the end of complete sentences. Since the items above are sentence fragments, no periods are necessary.
Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is a beautiful example of parallel writing structure. (The parallel elements are highlighted below.)
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Sentences should be written concisely, since needless words and fillers distract readers from your message.
1. Eliminate opening fillers such as there are, I would like to bring to your attention, and this is to inform you that.
Too wordy sentence: This is to inform you that health insurance rates will increase effective next month.
Improved: Health insurance rates will increase effective next month.
2. Eliminate wordy phrases from your writing.
Wordy Phrases Concise Substitutes
due to the fact that because
regardless of the fact that although
in regard to about
in the near future soon
3. Don't turn verbs into wordy phrases.
Wordy Phrases Concise Verbs
give consideration to consider
give a recommendation recommend
conduct a discussion discuss
4. Eliminate redundancies. The two words in the left column have the same meaning, so only one word is needed.
Redundancies Concise Substitutes
perfectly clear clear
exactly identical identical
dollar amount amount
Effective writers add interest to their writing by using all four types of sentences-simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex.
A sentence is classified according to the number of independent and/or dependent clauses it contains. (An independent clause is a group of words with a subject and verb that could stand alone as a complete sentence. Dependent clauses can't stand on their own as complete sentences, because their meaning depends upon the independent clause in the sentence.)
A simple sentence such as John loaded the software contains just one independent clause. A compound sentence contains two independent clauses: John loaded the software, and Mary installed the hard drive. A complex sentence contains both an independent clause and a dependent clause. For example, After the installation was complete, the computer was rebooted is an example of a compound sentence. Finally, a compound-complex sentence contains at least two independent clauses and one dependent clause. Because they are so long, compound-complex sentences should be used sparingly. After the installation was complete, the computer was rebooted, and the IT department successfully completed the upgrade is an example of a compound-complex sentence.
Business writers should strive to use a variety of sentence types to make their writing more interesting. The following paragraph contains only compound sentences and thus sounds sing-song and boring:
John loaded the software, and Mary installed the hard drive. John went to lunch after finishing the job, but Mary skipped lunch to keep working. John started a new project after lunch, and Mary finished installing the hard drive later that afternoon.
Notice how much more interesting the paragraph becomes when we vary the sentence types:
John loaded the software, while Mary installed the hard drive. John finished and went to lunch, but Mary kept working, finally finishing the hard drive installation later that afternoon. John started a new project after lunch.
Correct Spelling and Grammar
Strong grammatical skills lend credibility to your writing. They also enhance the readability of your documents, since misspelled words and grammatical errors distract readers from your message.
1. Common Grammatical Errors
Comma Splices are independent clauses joined by a comma. (Remember that an independent clause is a clause that can stand alone as a complete sentence.) The manager hired Susan for the position, Ben was transferred to the main office is an example of a comma splice. To correct this common grammatical mistake, you can do one of three things:
a) Change the comma to a semicolon.
b) Add a coordinating conjunction after the comma, such as and or but.
c) Change the comma to a period, and separate the independent clauses into two separate sentences.
Run-On Sentences are independent clauses joined together without punctuation or a coordinating conjunction. The manager hired Susan for the position Ben was transferred to the main office is an example of a run-on sentence. They can fixed in the same ways that comma splices can be corrected (see above).
Sentence Fragments are incomplete sentences. To be complete, a sentence must have a subject and a verb, and it must make sense. Because Human Resources hired twenty people is an example of a sentence fragment. Although it contains a subject and a verb, the sentence doesn't make sense since the word because indicates the sentence is dependent on another clause to complete its meaning. The following sentence would be considered complete: Because Human Resources hired twenty people, new office furniture had to be ordered.
The Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) provides helpful information about writing grammatically correct sentences, including subject-verb agreement, number usage, comma placement, and many other topics.
2. Using Spell Check and Grammar Check to Proofread your Documents
Microsoft Word's spelling and grammar check feature is a powerful tool for proofreading documents, but it needs to be set up correctly to work properly. This screencast explains how to change options in Word to maximize the effectiveness of this proofreading tool: Running Spell Check and Grammar Check
3. Other Proofreading Considerations
It is important to proofread your document carefully, since spell check and grammar check will not catch correctly spelled words that are incorrectly spelled in the context of your sentence (ie. knight vs. night). Also, carefully check the spelling of names and the accuracy of numbers. Evaluate the formatting of your document, making sure it is readable and that you were consistent with your indents, line spacing, and margins.
Consider printing a hard copy of your document rather than just proofreading from the screen. Errors tend to jump out more from a printed page, and you are also more likely to observe strange page breaks and unattractive spacing.
Ideally, you should proofread your document and then set it aside for several days before proofreading it again. Writers tend to "fill in" gaps in their minds when proofreading something they have just written. When they pick up the same document days later, they are more likely to notice these gaps in their writing because the words are not as fresh in their minds.
Read your document twice-once for grammar, and once for word meanings, comprehension, and flow. Reading the document out loud can also help you to identify errors and evaluate the tone of your document.
1. Cover one subject per paragraph, and begin each paragraph with a topic sentence stating what the subject is about. Focusing on just one clearly stated subject in each paragraph helps readers understand your message.
2. Link ideas together by repeating words in sentences. For example, look at both of these paragraphs, and see how repeating the words campaign and cost in the second paragraph makes the paragraph more coherent by linking ideas together.
Without repeating words: John suggested an aggressive marketing campaign for the new product. Direct mailings will be sent to all households in the target market, and this will be very costly. Additional funds were set aside for marketing this year by the corporate office.
With repeating words: John suggested an aggressive marketing campaign for the new product. The campaign will involve direct mailings to all households in the target market, and will be very costly. The high cost will be partially offset by the additional funds set aside for marketing this year by the corporate office.
3. Use transitional expressions to help readers understand where your message is going. Common transitional expressions include therefore, consequently, however, then, first, next, and although. Compare the following two paragraphs to see how transitional expressions improve the clarity and cohesiveness of a writer's message.
Without transitional expressions: The Human Resources department is developing a plan to increase employee retention. Three employees resigned from the accounting department last month. We had to hire temporary staff to fill the positions until new accounting staff could be hired. Many important accounting tasks went unfinished. Employee retention has become a top priority for Human Resources.
Notice how the paragraph above seems disjointed, and that it is difficult to follow the writer's point. Now read the paragraph after transitional expressions (italicized) were added:
With transitional expressions: The Human Resources department is developing a plan to increase employee retention. After three employees resigned from the accounting department last month, we had to hire temporary staff to fill the positions until new accounting staff could be hired. As a result, many important accounting tasks went unfinished. Therefore, employee retention has become a top priority for Human Resources.