Category Archives: Authors

Posts for those who write fiction and nonfiction novels and short stories.

Writing Style and Language Complexity

Writing style comprises four characteristics:

  1. Formality
  2. Language complexity
  3. Objectivity, and
  4. Information depth.

The purpose you are trying to accomplish, the readers’ needs, your relationship with the reader, and the type of document affect the style in which you write. Style is a strategy for effective writing, not a goal.

Levels of Language Complexity 

Some writers use simple, straightforward sentences with few modifying phrases and clauses. Others use complex sentences with many modifiers, interjected descriptions, and multiple clauses and phrases.

Simple sentence example: “Lisa bought a red car.”

This simple sentence contains a simple subject (“Lisa”) and a simple predicate with an object (“bought a red car”). This sentence has two modifying words (“a,” “red”) but no other phrases or clauses.

Moderately complex sentence example: “When the day ended, Lisa, a sales clerk at the downtown market, bought a red car.”

This moderately complex sentence has an introductory descriptive clause (“when the day ended”), a simple subject (“Lisa”), an appositive for the subject (“a sales clerk at the downtown market”), and a simple predicate with an object (“bought a red car”).

Very complex sentence example: “When the day ended, which couldn’t have happened soon enough, given the type of day she had had, Lisa, a sales clerk at the downtown market, a grimy, dark nook in an old building, bought what she mistakenly thought was a new, or, at the worst, slightly used, red car.”

This complex sentence has an introductory descriptive clause (“when the day ended”), a description of the introductory clause (“which couldn’t have happened soon enough”), a description of the description of the introductory clause (“given the type of day she had had”), a subject (“Lisa”), an appositive for the subject (“a sales clerk at the downtown market”), a description of the appositive for the subject (“a grimy, dark nook”), a description of the description of the appositive for the subject (“in an old building”). And then we finally get to the predicate, which is similarly complicated.

Key Features of Language Complexity

As these three examples show, the 2 key features of language complexity are

  1. the number of descriptive phases and clauses and
  2. the levels of description (such as description of description).

A careful writer considers sentence complexity in light of the readers’ needs. Simple sentences can be read quickly and understood easily. As sentences become more complex, they contain more information and “flavor,” but they require more work from the readers and increase the potential for misunderstanding.

Advice for Writers

As with all style issues, the level of language complexity needs to fit the readers’ needs. Simple sentences are the most easy to understand. They present minimal information in a straightforward manner, with no interruptions in the main thought being communicated. On the other hand, using too many simple sentences, or a string of simple sentences, makes the writing appear amateurish.

For technical manuals, lists of instructions, user guides, and other documents that present single action steps, stick with simple sentences. For most other types of documents, the writer can present more complex information and create better reader interest and engagement by using a mix of simple and moderately complex sentences.

If your goal is reader understanding and interest, avoid very complex sentences. Overall, you will communicate best by

  • using a mix of simple and moderately complex sentences,
  • limiting the number of descriptive phrases,
  • presenting only one descriptive phrase at a time, and
  • avoiding descriptions of descriptions.

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Active Voice and Passive Voice

Active and Passive Voice

When you are active, you do something. When you are passive, things happen to you. This is the same concept as the active and passive voice in sentences.

In the active voice, the subject performs the main action. In the passive voice, the main action is done to the subject.

Example D.1a, active voice: “The service team collected the parts.” (subject: service team; main verb: collected)
Example D.1b, passive voice: “The parts were collected by the service team.” (subject: parts; main verb: collected)

To determine whether your sentence is active or passive, ask, “Is the subject doing the verb?” If the answer is Yes, then the sentence is active. If the answer is No, the sentence is passive. In example D.1a, the subject did the action, so the sentence is active. In example D.1b, the action was done to the subject, so the sentence is passive.

If we describe this concept as a formula, we get this:

S –> V = active (the subject does the verb)
V –> S = passive (the verb is done to the subject)

Grammatically, the active voice looks like this:

Subject – Verb – Object (i.e., Who did what to whom?).

On the other hand, the passive voice uses the object as the grammatical subject of the verb, resulting in

Subject/Object – Verb (i.e., To whom was it done?).

By using the object as the grammatical subject, a passive voice sentence makes the information convoluted and complex, and the reader will be less likely to respond to it. Additionally, the meaningful subject (i.e., who or what does the main action) will never be the grammatical subject in the passive voice. 

Main action: The main action described by the sentence, what the sentence is about.
Meaningful subject: The person or thing doing the main action.
Grammatical subject: The word in the subject position in the sentence.

In nearly every sentence, the active voice results in more direct writing. However, the passive voice has a purpose, too. Next, we’ll look at the reasons for each voice.

Reasons for active voice

The main reason for using the active voice is that it directly answers the readers’ question: Who did what to whom? It provides that information and in that order. As a result, the reader can more easily understand and remember the idea you wish to communicate.

Other reasons include the following:

  1. Sentences in the active voice are more engaging. Something is performing an action.
  2. The active voice is more likely to use the meaningful subject as the grammatical subject and the meaningful action as the main verb.
  3. Active voice sentences are generally more concise.
  4. The active voice emphasizes active verbs.

In brief, active voice follows the principles of direct writing.

Reasons for passive voice

The passive voice may be appropriate for two reasons: (1) to de-emphasize the person or thing doing the action, and (2) to shorten the grammatical subject.

The main reason for using the passive voice is to hide or de-emphasize the meaningful subject, the person or thing that did the meaningful action. Instead, the passive voice emphasizes the person or thing on which the action was performed, as seen in D.2a and D.2b.

Example D.2a, passive, emphasizes the material: “The material was first developed in the laboratory by researchers from Oslo.”
Example D.2.b, active, emphasizes the researchers: “Researchers from Oslo first developed the material in a laboratory.”

In both D.2a and D.2b, the meaningful action is developed, making researchers the meaningful subject. Whereas the active voice sentence in D.2a uses the meaningful subject as the grammatical subject, the passive voice sentence in D.2b does not. If the writer wishes to focus on the material, and if the researchers are not important (or not at this point in the document), the writer might prefer the passive voice.

Scientific writing, regardless of the field, does not require the passive voice. This also applies to dissertation writing. The active voice is perfectly appropriate for describing the research methodology. The purpose of the research methodology is to describe what the researchers did to collect and analyze the data. Thus, the researchers are correct to use the active voice when describing their actions. Instead of writing

“The data were collected from six species of house sparrows,”

The researcher can write

“We collected data from six species of house sparrows.”

In many cases, the writer can revise the sentence to use the active voice without mentioning the researchers, as seen here:

“Six species of house sparrows provided the initial data for analysis.”

The second reason for using the passive voice is to simplify and shorten the subject of the sentence so that the main verb is closer to the beginning of the sentence and easier to find.

Example D.3a, active voice sentence: “The decision whether to solicit for and hire a new personnel manager or to outsource those functions to an external agency consumed valuable work time.” (subject: 21 words)
Example D.3b, passive voice sentence: “Valuable work time was consumed by the decision whether to solicit for and hire a new personnel manager or to outsource those functions to an external agency.” (subject: 3 words)

Example D.3a uses the meaningful subject (The decision whether to . . .) as the grammatical subject. It focuses the readers’ attention on the main idea of the sentence. For these reasons, Example D.3a is more direct than Example D.3b. However, the subject contains 21 words, greatly delaying the reader from reaching the main verb. On the other hand, Example D.3b uses the object (Valuable work time) as the grammatical subject, forcing the meaningful subject to the end of the sentence. However, the grammatical subject contains only 3 words, so the reader can reach the main verb more quickly.

In cases similar to Examples D.3a, the writer may choose to use the passive voice to reduce the length of the grammatical subject.

In a limited number of cases, the passive voice is useful, but examine every passive voice sentence carefully to make sure it is the better choice. Other than in these two cases, the active voice will produce better writing. When we editing clients’ documents at Precise Edit, we rarely need to use the passive voice.

(Adapted from the forthcoming Bowman’s Concise Guide to Technical Writing, available mid-February 2012 at

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Where Does the Comma Go?

Do commas confuse you?

The final stage of the writing and editing process is proofreading: correcting any errors in spelling, punctuation, word usage, and format. Roughly 75% of what I do while proofreading clients’ documents is correct commas.

When I teach university writing courses, I ask the students, “What’s the number one thing that confuses you about punctuation and grammar?” In every class, someone says “Commas,” and about half of the students nod in agreement.

Commas confuse most people. Unlike other types of punctuation, they are used in so many ways. However, if you want to write clearly and professionally, you need to use commas correctly. Continue reading

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How much should my e-book cost? and SmashWords have opened the doors for self-publishing authors to distribute their e-books worldwide, and many authors are quick to take advantage of this opportunity. They upload their book files, fill in the book descriptions and other information, and then get to the question of price. How much should an e-book cost?

Many new self-publishing authors are looking for the most readers possible, so they choose a low price. Perhaps the author is hoping consumers will buy the book on impulse because the price is so low. Perhaps the author thinks that the low price will result in massive sales volume, which would compensate for the lower profit per book. I see many books with a $0.99 price tag.

This isn’t always the best approach to setting the price for an e-book. In fact, it’s usually the wrong approach. We can turn to the field of micro-economics to understand why gaining more readers isn’t always desirable, and why high sales volume doesn’t always produce the most profit. We’ll look at sales price from the basis of three concepts:

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Top 5 Strategies to Improve Your Writing

When I teach writing classes, give book talks, or generally discuss strategies for improving written communication, I often get this question: “What are the best strategies for writing well?” 

Writers (anyone who communicates through writing) can do many things to improve the clarity, correctness, and impact of their writing. Based on my years of helping clients improve their writing, here are my top 5 strategies. 

1. Use the Rhetorical Subject as the Grammatical Subject. 

The grammatical subject is the word in the “subject’s place.” Sometimes, the “doer” of the main action is not the grammatical subject (the word serving as the subject to the main verb). Consider this sentence: 

“Finding a solution is our greatest concern.”  Continue reading

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Restoring the Power of Clichés

How a cliché becomes a cliché

When a particular cliché was first used (before it became a cliché), it created an impact. It used words in an interesting and novel way. The person who heard or read the expression might have thought, “Gosh, that’s a really creative way to express that idea.” Then, when other people began to use that expression, they were not clever; they were copycats. Having no interesting ideas of their own, they used someone else’s idea. When many people do this, the once clever expression became a cliché. Continue reading

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Taking a Bite at Poor Writing

The story is simple and exciting. The writing is terrible. 


Here’s the story, in brief. An “alligator handler” is showing off how he can “handle” alligators, and he gets bitten on the arm. Onlookers are horrified. He escapes and goes to the hospital. (You can read the story and watch the video here:

However, once we get past our morbid fascination with the story and look at the writing, we see that the writer has only a loose grasp of punctuation, spelling, and logic. So let’s look at the writing, find the errors, and use this story to point out a few common mistakes. 

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