Monday, August 13, 2012

AWKWARDLY YOURS: 12 Tips for Fixing Awkward Writing

by Isabo Kelly

The term “awkward” can be a little confusing when editors and critique partners use it to point out some flaw in a sentence or passage of your prose. What does it really mean?

Basically, it means that what you’re trying to say isn’t coming across clearly to a reader. Remember, readers aren’t in your head. They can’t magically understand what you’re trying to say if you don’t actually say it. Other terms used to describe this awkwardness problem might be: clunky, muddled, confusing, too wordy, or huh?

So how do you recognize awkwardness in your writing? And how do you weed it out?

To recognize awkward phrasing, read out loud. If you trip over your sentence, or it doesn’t quite make sense, chances are it’s an awkward sentence. Additionally, get one or two trusted beta readers to point out places where your writing is clunky or confusing.

That’s the easy part. Now you have to fix the muddled writing. In honor of the New Year, here are twelve tips to help:

1. Clarify what you mean to say. All that follows comes down to this point. Conveying thoughts to readers via the written word requires clarity. Be clear on exactly what you’re trying to say.

2. Then say what you mean. Don’t meander around the point. Just say it. Try actually saying out loud what you intend for readers to know, hear the words that make sense then write those down.

3. Throw out the need to be “writerly”. Always go with clarity above artiness if you want your fiction to be readable.

4. Simplify. Don’t get lost in convoluted turns of phrase. See number two and write what you mean in the most direct, simple way possible. This is not to say you should be using only simple words. Don’t be afraid to use that big old vocabulary. But don’t sacrifice clarity for the sake of your Thesaurus.

5. Separate ideas. Don’t try to mash-up several different trains of thought into a single sentence. Separate the ideas. And then see number six.

6. Look at the order of thoughts/ideas and make sure they are logical. Readers need some sense of logical flow. One idea should follow from the proceeding idea in a way that makes sense.

7. Dump repetitions. Especially if you’re repeating within the same sentence or paragraph. Readers are smart. You don’t have to beat them over the head. However…

8. Finish what you’re trying to say. Don’t assume readers will know what you were attempting to get at. Say it outright so they won’t be left guessing and confused.

9. Pay attention to your grammar. Yes, yes, grammar is a bad word to some writers. But it’s there for a reason. The whole objective of basic grammar rules is to convey exactly what you mean to say. Remember the memorable title of the fun grammar book Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss? A lot of confusion can arise from one badly placed comma.

10. Pay attention to your pronouns. Make sure they refer to the correct objects. This is part of paying attention to proper grammar and separating ideas. Making sure nouns line up with the correct pronouns will eliminate awkward, and sometimes unintentionally funny, sentences.

11. As much as possible, stick to basic punctuation. Periods, commas, quotation marks, apostrophes, and question marks will cover almost all of your needs in fiction. Use anything else with a light touch. Then when things like ellipses and em-dashes are used, they’ll have more impact. Forcing yourself to stick to basic punctuation will also force you to make the words themselves convey your meaning.

12. Strengthen your verbs. Using one very specific, strong verb in place of a weak verb with four or five modifiers will save you from clunky sentences every time.

Isabo Kelly’s latest science fiction romance, The Secret of Narava, is out now. For more on Isabo and her books, visit her website, follow her on Twitter @IsaboKelly, or find her on Facebook


  1. Well said! Great post, it's almost like a checklist.

  2. Thanks, Jean and Jeanine! I actually do use this as a kind of checklist when editing out my own clunky writing, Jean. LOL