By Barbara McNichol for Words Matter Week, NAIWE, March 3, 2010
As you revise, proofread, and finalize what you’ve written, whack all the extra words you can to sharpen your message in compelling ways.
Watch for the following opportunities to take away the bumps so your writing moves forward smoothly like a car accelerating on a on freeway.
Aim to eliminate extraneous phrases such as:
- “there is” and “there will be”
e.g., There will be many candidates who are already planning to move. Better: Many candidates may be already planning to move.
- “It is all about”; “the fact of the matter is”; “the fact that”
e.g., The fact of the matter is that it’s unwise to go out carousing. Better: It’s unwise to go out carousing.
e.g., There may be additional sites you should seek out in regards to your industry. Better: Seek additional sites related to your industry.
e.g., He is going to be a key asset. Better: He will be a key asset.
e.g., Add key words in order to describe the new position. Better: Add key words to describe the new position.
- “is intended to, meant to, designed to”
e.g., Prescreening is intended to focus on key aspects of the position. Better: Prescreening focuses on key aspects of the position.
- “the reason why is that . . .” (a simple “because” will suffice)
Strunk and White, in their classic guide The Elements of Style, call such clutter “the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”
Take out these wobbly words whenever you can:
- some “We rely on some long-standing methods.”much “Jobs posted on the internet reach a much larger audience.”very “Get ready to do a very good job.”quite a few “It’s been quite a few days since we spoke.” Be specific; use a number.
that “Find information that you can apply easily.”
Note: The word that doesn’t substitute for who when referring to a human being. E.g., “. . . a person that plays the piano” should be “a person who plays the piano.”
Knock out redundancies such as:
- end result
- add more
- tally up
- future plan
- absolute guarantee
- actual experience
- adhesive tape
- alongside of
- ask yourself
- at the present time
- spell out in detail
- sum total
- sworn affidavit
- unexpected surprise
- visible to the eye
Think of these extra words as layers of onion skin before you get to the usable part. Peel them from your writing. – Diana Booher, Booher’s Rules of Business Grammar
Replace phrases with single words where appropriate:
- “a great number of” with “many”
- “ahead of schedule” with “early”
- “during the time that” with “while”
- “give consideration to” with “consider”
- “in spite of the fact that” with “although”
- Change nouns to verbs:
- “the examination of” becomes “examine”
- “reach a decision” becomes “decide”
- “the transformation of” becomes “transform”
- “the reorganization of” becomes “reorganize”
- Revise long-winded sentences:
- Chop a long sentence into two – and make sure they both sound correct!
- Combine thoughts and ideas when you can.
- Question every single word – especially every adverb and adjective.
- Take out the ones that don’t add to the meaning.
- Route out words that are inadvertently used twice:
- “Following a process for hiring, we followed his techniques.” Better: “Following a process for hiring, we adopted his techniques.”
- “Hoping for warm weather, we hoped to book our vacation in the south.” Better: “Hoping for warm weather, we booked our vacation in the south.”
- Let absolutes be absolute:
e.g., Ever heard someone say “his bucket is emptier (or more empty) than mine”? How can something be emptier than empty? The same holds true for all absolute words. Drop the “less” or “more” in front of these:
- Get rid of tag-ons to verbs:
- continue on
- refer back to
- grouped together
- gathered together
- open up
- cancel out
- first began
- add together
- link together
Stop Your Writing from Idling in Neutral
“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” – Elmore Leonard
Avoid Writing a Run-On Sentence
What is it? A sentence that contains too many subjects and predicates . . . like running two independent clauses together without the benefit of a comma, a conjunction, or another type of “glue” such as a punctuation mark or connecting word.
E.g., “We received the package yesterday it arrived in the mail.”
E.g., “Now Hiring New Chicken Livers” (actually seen on a billboard!)
E.g., (You’ll find sentences that go on and on all around you.)
When is it time to start a new sentence so you don’t have a run-on collision?
Here’s a suggestion: Use your breath. Yes, that’s right. Allow one inhalation and one exhalation for sentence as you read it, either aloud or silently. If you run out of breath before the end, consider this sentence too long!
Shorten Lengthy Sentences
Does wordiness imply writing only short sentences? No. The length of your sentence depends on what you want to say, and naturally some ideas take more words to express than others.
Still, head in the direction of “concise” rather than “verbose.” Just like you don’t want to spend much time with people who are verbose—they talk on and on and on—your readers don’t want to hang out with verbosity in your writing.
Why? Too-long sentences tend to drag readers into complacency. They also demand a good memory. Readers have to hold onto the concept in the first part of the sentence. Then they have to wade through all the fluff to finally reach the connecting point at the end of the sentence.
Rule of Thumb: No sentence should be longer 21 words and shorter if possible. It’s just difficult to keep track of the sentence’s core idea if it’s longer than that. Note: the longest sentence in the paragraph above is 21 words. Whew!
Whack Wordiness Example: Editing this 44-word sentence (#1) brought it down to 21 words (#2) – that’s 50 percent!
#1 – The subsequent chapters then will focus in great detail on each of the steps to make sure you know how to accomplish each step before proceeding to the next step and how to measure whether or not you are ready to move to the next step. (46 words)
#2 – The subsequent chapters detail all 13 steps and show how to accomplish each one while measuring whether you are ready to move on. (23 words)
Dig out a page or two of your own writing and pick the longest paragraph. Count the number of words in that paragraph and rewrite it completely. As you do, look for ways to:
- Eliminate extraneous phrases
- Take out wobbly words
- Knock out redundancies
- Replace phrases with single words
- Change nouns to verbs
- Revise long-winded sentences
- Route out repeated words
- Let absolutes be absolute
- Get rid of tag-ons to verbs
You want your writing to move forward in drive, not idle in neutral, meander off course, or ramble. So don’t stop until you’ve ruthlessly reduced the number of words in your sentence. Aim for paring it down by 33 percent or more. Be succinct!
How to Stop Rambling
“Make every word work like a galley slave.” – William Zinsser
Rambling often stems from muddy thinking—that is, not having a clear idea of what you want to say. When analyzing a piece of your writing that rambles on, ask, “Exactly what was I trying to say?”
Challenge yourself to state its purpose in one simple sentence. Then once you have your intended point in mind, ask:
- Did I put in unnecessary facts on the road to making my point?
- Did I add any phrases that were irrelevant to this point?
- Did I keep in mind what readers might be asking as I make my point?
- Do my sentences seem to jar like riding on a bumpy road?
- Did I take a straight line to make my point or did I take unnecessary detours?
Consider using this formula* to help keep your writing concise. Use no more than:
- 5 paragraphs per page
- 10 sentences per paragraph
- 15 words per sentence
- 3 syllables per word
*Recommended in Don’t Let Your Participles Dangle in Public!
Step 1: Take one page of your writing, 300-400 words, and count the number of paragraphs. Fewer than 5?
Step 2: In an average paragraph, count the number of sentences you have.
Fewer than 10?
Step 3: Choose one paragraph and count the number of words in each sentence. What’s the average? Fewer than 15?
Step 4: Now circle all the words on the page that have 4 syllables or more.
Following these four steps, you now have lots of clues where to smooth out the potholes on the road.
Keep Your Writing Motor Running
“Writings are useless unless they are read, and they cannot be read unless they are readable.” – Theodore Roosevelt
One Thought, One Sentence
Unless you’re a novelist like William Faulkner, it’s best to express one thought in one sentence and end it. Spend another sentence on the next thought, and so on to keep your prose moving forward.
When a sentence has too many ideas and runs on too long, it is called a run-on sentence. Actually, a run-on sentence really has TWO sentences (or thoughts) that have been INCORRECTLY combined into one. You can combine two sentences into one, but you must follow some rules to do it correctly.
e.g., Mary loved traveling in Norway she thought it was cold.
To correct this, use a punctuation mark, a bridge word, or separate the two thoughts completely.
Mary loved traveling in Norway; she thought it was cold.
Mary loved traveling in Norway, but she thought it was cold.
Mary loved traveling in Norway. She thought it was cold.
Steer on the Sunny Side
It’s hard for readers to track what’s being written when it’s stated in a negative way. And most of the time, negative statements require a lot more words to make a point. Avoid using “no” and “not” except when you strongly want to emphasize or contrast something.
Negative: The answer doesn’t lie in not having enough people to do the job.
Better: The answer lies in hiring enough people to do the job.
Negative: We can’t incorporate all the design features we want without increasing the unit size.
Better: To provide all the design features we want, we increase the unit size.
Build Bridges to Guide Your Reader
Since your goal is to whack wordiness, you may consider bridge words and phrases extraneous. Yet, the transitions from one sentence to another do keep your motor running and should be kept in high gear. Why? They create logical links that smooth the road like a well-maintained highway.
Examples of bridge words that . . .
- connect two ideas of the same kind: and, plus, as well as
- add another thought: besides, also, then, again, secondly, etc.
- compare or contrast ideas: but, still, however, yet, nevertheless,
- reinforce an idea: indeed, in fact, of course, by all means
- show results: as a result, consequently, thus, hence
Place Strongest Words at End
Whenever possible, place your most prominent words at the end of your sentence. Doing so provides emphasis and helps advance your writing from one new idea to the next.
Which ending phrase is more targeted and memorable? (The clue is in the italics.)
You’ll drive smoothly toward your destination of delivering a compelling message with your new ability to whack wordiness.
With your new ability to whack wordiness, you’ll drive smoothly toward your destination of delivering a compelling message.
Check out the Resources that follow.
Booher, Dianna. Booher’s Rules of Business Grammar: 101 Fast and Easy Ways to Correct the Most Common Errors. McGraw Hill. 2009.
DuPont, M. Kay. Don’t Let Your Participles Dangle in Public! Jedco Press. 3rd Edition. 2006.
Fryxell, David A. Structure & Flow. Writer’s Digest Books. 1996.
O’Connor, Patricia T. Woe Is I. Riverhead Books, 1996.
Reddick, Karen L. Grammar Done Right! Hub House Publishing, 2009.
Strunk, William Jr. and White, E.B. The Elements of Style. 3rd Edition. McMillan Publishing 1979.
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Word Choice Guide
Want a word choice guide that makes your writing easier? You can access 350+ pairs of confusing words (e.g., further vs. farther, advice vs. advise) in Word Trippers: The Ultimate Source for Choosing the Perfect Word When it Really Matters. Available as an ebook at www.wordtrippers.com for only $16.95.