Writing Guide: Three Ways to Turn Weak Sentences Into Strong Ones

One of the best exercises for writing is to edit a friend’s paper. If it’s good, you’ll learn from it. And if it’s bad, you’ll learn a lot from it. The same goes for your own writing. Although it’s common to believe that good writers just pour out golden prose, the more prosaic truth is that good writers are good editors who spend most of their time revising their writing—shaping and reshaping their sentences for crystalline articulation. To know how to fix a sentence, though, requires knowing what’s wrong with it.

So how can you identify weak sentences you’ve written and turn them into strong ones?

Get rid of linking verbs and vague pronouns

“Linking verbs” are verbs like “is,” “seem,” and “appear” that equate one part of a sentence with another—and avoid showing any causal relationship between ideas. They are (yes “are”) the hallmark of weak sentence construction.

Many writing guides suggest turning nouns into verbs to avoid linking verbs. For example, turn “The choice was advantageous” into “He made an advantageous choice” for a far more active sentence construction.

Yet one of the best ways to avoid linking verbs is to do the opposite—to turn verbs into nouns. Take this passage:

○ “Bottom expects women to love him. This clearly demonstrates his delusion.” (Eh)

Change the verb to a noun, and use the verb to show the significance of the event:

○ “Bottom’s expectation that women love him clearly demonstrates his delusion.” (Better!)

This second sentence turns the original verb “expects” into the noun “expectation” so that the description of Bottom’s feelings is now the premise rather than the point; this noun removes any need for the vague “that.” (Just make sure to avoid linking verbs. “Bottom’s expectation that women love him is the result.”… is not much of a result).

Test your sentences by asking, “Does my verb show the significance of an action or an event?

Use repetitions deliberately to strengthen your writing

We often hear that repetitions make for weak writing. Yet if you make it clear your repetitions are deliberate, they can actually strengthen your writing. Here’s how:

- Place “this” in front of the word/phrase the second time you use it

- Use repetitions in parallel structures to strengthen the matching elements (i.e. “Her dazzling display of light illuminates her equally dazzling oratory.”)

Avoid “there is” sentences, which say that something exists

Verbs like “contain,” “include,” “feature,” “is,” “happen,” and “occur” don’t set up relationships; they just say that there is something that exists. Get rid of these words when you see them to show what the point is of your claim. Use these verbs instead.

Important Reminders

○ Never, ever use the 2nd person (i.e. the word “you”). Replace with “one,” or, better, a noun.

○ The royal “we” is sometimes acceptable — but depends on teacher.

○ Write about fiction in the present tense (English papers) and write about fact in the past tense (history papers). To refer to a previous event in present tense, use “has”: “has gone,” “has been.”