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Word Matters: Energize Your Writing

By Mary Vitcenda, Senior Editor

Although temperatures have been up and down, there's a sense of anticipation as spring approaches. You can feel the energy in the air. So how about energizing your writing? Here are three techniques to do that.​


Decluttering is an essential way to add energy to your writing. As one of my favorite writers on writing, William Zinsser says, “Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.” How do you recognize clutter? Look for needless words and needless “big” words.
Here are some examples of cluttered phrases and their fixes:

  Free up  Free
  Concerning the matter of  About
  In the event that  If
  May I be of assistance?  May I help?
  Due to the fact that  Because

What if a “big” word — a technical term — really is the best word to use? That’s OK, but make sure you explain it in first reference for your readers, who don’t know the field like you do, or who are newcomers to the subject.

Get Active

Another way to add energy to your writing is through use of active, not passive, construction. Passive construction makes the object of an action into the subject of a sentence, e.g., “The road was crossed by the chicken.” To quote William Zinsser again: “A style that consists of passive construction will sap the reader’s energy. Nobody ever quite knows what is being perpetrated by whom and on whom.”

The fix is making the subject the subject and the object the object, e.g., “The chicken crossed the road.” Here are two other examples from Extension reports:

  Passive   Active
  Participants should be introduced to the concept of motivation by the facilitator.   The facilitator should introduce participants to the concept of motivation.
  Smith’s work is differentiated because it focuses on the leader’s behavior.   Smith’s work differs because it focuses on the leader’s behavior.

Are there any cases where the passive voice is acceptable? Yes, if:
  • The actor is unknown or not important.
  • It’s more important to draw attention to the person or thing acted upon.
  • You need to vary the pace of a passage or section or maintain a theme of some sort, e.g., “Another way to add energy to your writing is through…”

Show Your Strength

A third way to inject energy in your writing is through use of strong, active verbs instead of weak, passive ones. Strong verbs convey action, evoke mental images, and hold the reader’s attention. Strong verbs also are precise, and they should make sense, as well as fit the context.

In your search for strong verbs, generally avoid forms of “to be,” such as “is, was, has,” or “have.” Sometimes those are the best words for the situation, but look for stronger verbs when possible

As William Zinsser says, “Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum. Active verbs push hard; passive verbs tug fitfully.”

Here are a couple examples of quick fixes to strengthen verbs:

  Weak Verb   Strong Verb
  The individual has new knowledge.   The individual gains (or acquires) new knowledge. 
  This workshop is an opportunity to learn more about photography.   This workshop offers an opportunity to learn more about photography.

Final Word

There are many techniques for energizing your writing. We’ve just looked at three of the best. Think about them and use them. Then sit back and contemplate the coming joys of spring.
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