Welcome to another post in the Content Creator Basics series. Here, we’ll share our go-to tips for flexing your freelance writer muscles—whether you’re writing content for someone else or for your own blog. Check in for more tips to sharpen your online content writing skills.
When you write for the web, you have to make your sentences clear and easy to read. Web readers generally scan and don’t want to spend a lot of time parsing sentences, so you need to make reading simple and effortless.
If you strengthen your subjects and verbs, you’ll strengthen your writing overall. Keep reading to learn four ways to make your subjects and verbs clear, direct, and concise.
1. Use Concrete, Picturable Subjects and Verbs
Generally, readers understand a sentence better if they can picture what’s happening. That means that sentences with concrete, picturable subjects and verbs tend to be more effective.
As you review a sentence that you’ve written, look for a character and an action. For example:
- Deciding on the right flowers for her landscape took a long time.
The subject of this sentence is “deciding on the right flowers,” which is not particularly easy to visualize. No one actually does anything in this sentence. Instead, let’s try this:
- She took a long time to decide on the right flowers for her landscape.
Now we have a character who performs an action — a woman who takes her time. This is much easier for readers to picture.
If you write onsite blogs, this principle explains three of our style preferences — we prefer to avoid gerunds as subjects, dummy subjects, and nominalizations when possible. Those constructions have their place and can be useful, but they often end up weakening sentences by making them less picturable.
Gerunds as Subjects
A gerund is an -ing verb used as a noun, such as “I like running.” These are useful words, but they don’t make the strongest subjects because they refer to concepts, not people. Try strengthening your sentence by choosing a more picturable subject and verb. Here’s an example:
- Moving to Alaska is the right thing for you to do.
- You should move to Alaska — it’s the right thing to do.
In this case, we changed the subject from “moving to Alaska” to “you,” which is more concrete and picturable.
A dummy subject is a pronoun that functions as the subject of a sentence, but it doesn’t actually refer to anything. The most common forms are “it is” and “there are,” such as in the following sentences:
- It is clear that we need more resources.
- There are many reasons why we need more books.
While this grammatical construction is correct and often useful, it can also weaken a sentence because it obscures the sentence’s true subject. Here are revised versions of the above sentences with clearer subjects and verbs:
- Clearly, we need more resources.
- We need more books for many reasons.
If you’re tempted to use a dummy subject, check to see if you’d be better off using a true subject and verb instead.
Nominalizations are verbs converted into nouns. They make the verb of a sentence less concise. Here’s an example of a sentence with a nominalization and a revised version:
- The group made a decision to meet without Pierce.
- The group decided to meet without Pierce.
In this case, “decision” is the nominalized form of “decide.” When you turn it back into a verb, you make the sentence’s verb less wordy and more picturable.
For more information, see section 6 of the Onsite Blog Style Guide.
2. Use Active and Direct Verbs
Readers understand sentences best when the verbs get to the point. You can achieve this by avoiding passive voice in favor of active voice and by getting rid of filler verbs.
Choose Active Voice
Passive voice has its place, such as when the person doing an action is unknown or when you want to emphasize the object of a sentence. However, active voice is generally more concise and easier to understand:
- The ball was thrown by the girl.
- The girl threw the ball.
These sentences have the exact same information, but the second one uses active voice. It has fewer words, and the verb shows something happening instead of something existing in a state where something happens.
Avoid Filler Verbs
Writers often add extra verbs that weaken their sentences, such as in the following:
- A diaper rash cream can help protect your baby’s skin.
- A diaper rash cream protects your baby’s skin.
These extra verbs serve as hedges — you may be tempted to use them so you don’t talk in absolutes and inadvertently offend your reader or overpromise something. This is a good instinct, and you definitely want your writing to be accurate! However, these filler verbs can also be a crutch and weaken your point.
Watch out for extra verbs like the following:
While you will need them sometimes, be careful that they don’t get in the way of your sentence’s main verb.
3. Use Basic Verb Forms
English has a plethora of verb forms, some of them more useful than others. The following forms are often the simplest, most concise, and easiest for readers to understand:
- Infinitive (to write)
- Imperative (Write!)
- Simple present (she writes)
- Simple past (she wrote)
- Future (she will write)
If you find yourself using another verb form, especially progressive tense, check to make sure it’s necessary. You may be able to make your sentence more concise and direct with one of these forms instead. Here’s an example:
- She has written in the past and is writing now.
- She wrote in the past and writes now.
4. Keep Subjects and Verbs Close Together
Once you’ve gone through the work of choosing a direct, picturable subject and verb, don’t split them up. Keep them close together, and readers will read your sentence more easily:
- The doctor, even though he was very kind to his patients, always had openings in his schedule.
- The doctor always had openings in his schedule, even though he was very kind to his patients.
If you keep your subject and your verb close together, readers are less likely to get lost in your sentence.
Your subjects and verbs are the most important parts of your sentences. Treat them with respect and give them the attention they deserve, and your writing will be easier to read.
Do you have any strong opinions or pet peeves about subjects and verbs? Let us know in the comments!