Even if you’re an excellent writer and a perfect grammarian, you can exasperate your readers without even realizing it. Here are some problems I see in published writing all the time, along with revising tips that solve the problems quickly and easily.
1. Using an abbreviation without giving the full version the first time.
OK, everyone understands abbreviations like “USA” and “p.m.” But don’t assume that readers know other abbreviations just because they’re familiar to you. Spell them out the first time.
2. Writing a lengthy dialogue without helping readers keep track of who’s speaking.
Insert a name occasionally [“Look, Jim, I partially agree with you. But….”], or use some other strategy to help readers follow the back-and-forth exchange. For example, you could interrupt the dialogue with a sentence or two of description and then begin again with the speaker’s name: Carol looked down at her hands. Then she slowly answered Julie’s question.
3. Help readers keep track of the passage of time.
Like many people, I read in fits and starts. I don’t always remember that a chapter in a biography, say, mentioned the year as 1924 fifteen pages ago. Delete expressions like “later that year” or “a few months earlier.” Be specific: “later in 1962” or “in May 1947.”
4. Use names, not pronouns, when several people are mentioned in a paragraph.
If two women are having an argument, the word “she” is useless. Name names.
5. Reintroduce people when necessary.
Time and again I have to backtrack in a book or magazine article to figure out who “Joe” is. If there are many characters, and someone hasn’t been mentioned for several pages, reintroduce him or her.