How You Can Tighten Your Writing (Part 2): Avoiding Hedging and Qualifiers
In this second part of a four-part series on writing tight, I want to break down one of the less obvious but detrimental offences a writer can commit: using evasive language such as qualifiers.
What does that mean? Qualifiers such as “most” and “often” and “many” dot our spoken language but they weaken written sentences. The more a writer uses these qualifiers, the less confident they sound.
I’ve come across lines in articles written by beginners that resemble a teen hesitating to profess his passion to a potential prom date:
Many Canadians, perhaps most, often watch hockey.
There are three qualifiers in that short line — many, most, often — when a stronger sentence would have done that work.
Canadians love hockey.
I teach my coaching clients that hedging or backing into what you want to express signals to readers you aren’t fully confident about your words. It stems from using passive voice, hiding behind it when we aren’t sure about the veracity of our statements.
Instead of “I failed the student,” the passive writer will pen, “It was decided that a failing mark would be given to the students.” Find the subject to make it act and take responsibility for that action. Otherwise, your sentences will fall flat and they will be boring to read.
Another example is worth showcasing:
The people who are responsible for this incredible progress toward polio eradication are volunteer health workers
That passive writing resembles a sentence doing everything it can to avoid saying what is clear and simple.
The more active more readable version would be:
Volunteer health workers are responsible for this incredible progress toward polio eradication.
This lesson doesn’t preclude you from ever using passive voice ; that approach can fit with the rhythm of a sentence. You have to develop an ear for when passive works.
I find it fits in this opening sentence to an Agatha Christie novel:
In the afternoons it was the custom of Miss Jane Marple to unfold her second newspaper.
Writing an active version of that sentence would create awkward phrasing:
Miss Jane Marple’s custom in the afternoon was to unfold her second newspaper.
Then there are qualifiers and weak phrasings that don’t bring anything to your writing except hesitancy: a lot, sort of, kind of, somewhat, now and again, usually, commonly, may have been.
When you delete these words from your writing, you’ll see the difference in how you express yourself. So will your readers.
Thanks for checking out part 2 of this series, and be sure to revisit the first blog post on reducing redundancies. Subscribe to stay updated on when I publish the third part of this series on writing tight.