When I edit website content for my clients, I search for common writing offenses. These aren’t simple grammatical mistakes or spelling errors. Instead, I mark style infractions that impact the readability of a piece. I have developed a practical list that I reference when I edit content as a Virginia web content writer.
I apply this list to my client’s website text. First, I use the “find” function to identify and highlight the issues. Then, I read the document and adjust the issues while maintaining the tone of the piece.
Often, I see writers using not to hedge a thought. It creates a hesitant, handwringing tone that removes confidence from the author’s voice. By contrast, a definitive phrase enhances the meaning — while also improving readability.
Strunk and White’s Rule Number 11: Put Statements in the Positive Form
Many writers write statements in the negative when they could use a simple positive phrase. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style addresses this common mistake in rule number 11.
Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, non-committal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.
The guide offers the following examples:
|He was not very often on time.||He usually came late.|
|She did not think that studying Latin was much use.||She thought the study of Latin useless.|
|The Taming of the Shrew is rather weak in spots. Shakespeare does not portray Katharine as a very admirable character, nor does Bianca remain long in memory as an important character in Shakespeare’s works.||The women in The Taming of the Shrew are unattractive. Katharine is disagreeable, Bianca insignificant.|
You can see how these revisions make the sentences clearer and easier to read. Often, a single word replaces an entire phrase. From a reader’s perspective, this shortens the amount they have to remember between the beginning and end of the sentence.
Build a Habit for Strong Writing
As a writing habit, this change will strengthen your text. You will select precise language. Within Rule 11, the guideline also offers substitutions for several common infractions.
|did not remember||forgot|
|did not pay any attention to||ignored|
|did not have much confidence in||distrusted|
Ideally, these swapped phrases improve the rhythm of your writing. The guide shows how the shift creates a proper emphasis throughout a thought.
The antithesis of negative and positive is strong:
Not charity, but simple justice.
Not that I loved Caesar less, but Rome the more.
Negative words other than not are usually strong:
The sun never sets upon the British flag.
For the web writer, this is essential. Bounce rate increases and on-page time shortens when readers struggle to absorb sentences.
Most website visitors skim the text before they begin reading. If they encounter long sentences, full of difficult punctuation and fractured thoughts, they simply leave. As a result, search engines favor text that is easier to skim and read.
Find more web content tips and tricks by reviewing my Content Marketing and Website Content category. This encapsulates rules that I reference as a Virginia web content writer. Some refer to The Elements of Style while other tips reference anecdotes from my recent projects.
Also, you can read the full text for The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. on Gutenberg.org.
About The Elements of Style
One of my favorite nonfiction books, The Elements of Style often influences my editing process. Overall, it promotes clean and clear writing — a valuable asset for any project. According to the introduction,
This book aims to give in brief space the principal requirements of plain English style. It aims to lighten the task of instructor and student by concentrating attention (in Chapters II and III) on a few essentials, the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated. In accordance with this plan it lays down three rules for the use of the comma, instead of a score or more, and one for the use of the semicolon, in the belief that these four rules provide for all the internal punctuation that is required by nineteen sentences out of twenty.
Essentially, Strunk created a style guide to simplify the rules of writing. He wrote the original text in 1918 and it was published in 1920. In 1959, E.B. White revised and expanded the guide.
It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.
Overall, the text encourages the “omission of needless words” for the benefit of the reader.