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Home > Publications > Quill > Be a fit writer: cut the flab from your stories


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Friday, March 28, 2008
Be a fit writer: cut the flab from your stories

Paula LaRocque

The most common enemy of a clear, brief, direct and compelling writing style is wordiness. Whenever we use more words than necessary, we drain the work of its vigor. Skilled writers understand the hazards of wordiness and seek to make every word count.

One of the keys to making every word count is recognizing the words and structures that lead to windy writing. Deadwood and redundancy immediately spring to mind. Deadwood means words that do no work, and redundancy means words that repeat the work.

“Were found to be in agreement” is wordy because the single word “agreed” says it, and says it better. “Thought up the idea of” is also deadwood that would be better expressed by either of the words “conceived” or “imagined.” We typically write that someone “was declared the winner in” the student spelling bee, but wouldn’t the little word “won” be better?

Redundancies are not only wordy, they’re also often silly: “Sum total,” “free gift,” “12 noon,” “12 midnight,” “round in shape,” “blue in color.” Phrasing such as “she nodded her head” or “he shrugged his shoulders” are redundant; what else to nod and shrug but head and shoulders? “Set a new record,” “new recruit” and “new innovations” are redundant because all records — and innovations and recruits — are new.

Prepositions — little words such as in, on, of, by, for, with — often create wordy structures because each heralds a phrase that demands article and noun. So cutting prepositions is one quick way to leaner, more purposeful writing. Look at this sentence:

“He parked in the lot located on Maple Street on a daily basis because of the lack of a sufficient number of spaces on the streets in the vicinity of his office.”

That sentence has nine prepositions, which means it has nine prepositional phrases, two-thirds more than most sentences can bear. Ax those, and you ax the blubber: “He parked in the Maple Street lot because there weren’t enough spaces near his office.”

Here’s more prepositional flab:

• with the exception of: except

• in all other cases: otherwise

• by the same token: likewise

• on the occasion that: when

• at a later date: later

• in regard to: about

• in the event that: if

• at this point in time: now

• until such time as: until

Nothing lends more clarity, energy and compression to writing than single, active verbs. But we lose the benefit of the active verb when we turn it into a noun that ends in “ion” and pair it with a weak verb such as “have,” “make,” “give.” “They decided,” for example, is trimmer and more emphatic than “they made a decision.” More:

• gave a demonstration: demonstrated

• give consideration to: consider

• gave an exhibition: exhibited

• made a survey of: surveyed

• conducted an investigation: investigated

Weak verbs such as “have,” “make,” “give” and “be” are often worth pruning even when they’re not paired with “ion” nouns:

• have the need for: need

• made an effort: tried

• made the statement that: said

• were in attendance: attended

• have the ability to: can

Sentences that begin with “it” and “there” are often wordy: “It is mandatory that they” should be “they must.” And we should cut empty bombast such as “it has been observed that,” “it is axiomatic that,” “it has been said that” or “it is a truism that.”

Wordy: “There was a handful of people on the committee who said that the companies that were bidding had to give a demonstration of how their equipment functions.” Lose the padding in that sentence for a leaner result: “Some committee members said the bidding companies must demonstrate their equipment.”

Wordy: “There were 108 accidents on the targeted area’s roadways during the crackdown, which was a decline from the 145 accidents during the same time period last year.”

Lean: “The number of traffic accidents in the targeted area fell to 108 during the crackdown, down from 145 last year.”

Unnecessary passives also contribute to wordiness. “The estimates will be submitted by the contractors next week” would be trimmer and more direct as an active subject-verb-object sentence: “The contractors will submit estimates next week.”

Cutting wordiness is among the most basic and crucial editing tasks. But it’s also among the quickest and easiest. And it’s well worth the effort because easy, meandering writing is the hallmark of the careless or inexpert, while pruned, precise work shows the sure hand of the professional.

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