Editing Tip #112 – Making a Stronger Impact with Phraseology

It’s not uncommon to hear about reducing the number of passive sentences in your work, or trimming the fat (extra words) for simplicity of thought and clarity of intent. But what crosses your mind when an editor highlights a perfectly good sentence and only gives you the note that: this phrasing makes it drag.

Coffee and Splash | Photo credit: Thomas, Flickr, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Coffee and Splash | Photo credit: Thomas, Flickr, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

For instance, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the following sentence:

You don’t want to put vinegar in your coffee.

It’s striking with it’s content and draws the reader in. Perhaps it could be tightened a little to: Don’t put vinegar in your coffee. But that would change the intent of the sentence, I think, from a suggestion to a command. Really, the questions you need to ask yourself are:

Why is this sentence negative? Does it need to be?

Let’s take a quick look at it in the positive and compare the two:

POSITIVE You want to avoid putting vinegar in your coffee.

NEGATIVE You don’t want to put vinegar in your coffee.

Why would you choose one over the other? And why would an editor suggest you pick the positive sentence over the negative one?

Honestly, it’s more straightforward.

If you find a lot of negative statements in your writing that contain don’t, shouldn’t, can’t or another such word, challenge yourself to rewrite them without the “not.” That will likely mean you need to find a more powerful verb, but the potential power of the sentence will increase.

Now, that doesn’t mean you have to change every instance of negative writing – we do need to read a variety of phraseology in books; it helps keep things interesting. This is just a tendency to watch for, and if you find it you know how to deal with it 😉

Happy Editing!

Categories: Editing

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1 reply

  1. Hi, M. J. Your post brings up something I come across fairly often–not negative phrasing but the use of “you want” or “you don’t want.” I edit a lot of self-help books, and because I imagine readers might disagree with the author telling them what they want or don’t want, I try to excise such phrases. It depends on the context and the audience, but if your readers have come to you for advice, I think they will generally appreciate you being straightforward. Simply tell them what to do and why. It will likely go against your instincts and your notions of courtesy–it goes against mine as well–but you don’t always need to say “please,” “I recommend,” “I suggest,” and so forth. Cheers! 🙂


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