If a word is not indispensable, dispense with it. If a phrase is not concise, consolidate it. If a sentence is not clear, clarify it.
Plot, in some sense, might resemble a scavenger hunt, but the reading of plot, or of any writing sample, must never involve the hunt for meaning or a deciphering of words. Good writing is clean writing.
And reading clean writing parallels the experience of one who picks up his car keys from the place he keeps them, rather than rummaging through clutter to search for where someone other than himself dropped them.
The writer’s job is to facilitate the reader’s passage by maintaining order—by trying his damnedest not to muck up the space.
Clean writing is litter-free, constructed in simplicity, and arranged for intent. Clean writing is communication par excellence.
Is a picture really worth a thousand words? …What about a thousand words from a rambler vs. 500 words from Mark Twain? He could say the same thing quicker and with more force than almost any other writer. One thousand words from Ginsberg are not even worth one from Wilde. It’s wild to declare the equivalency of any picture with any army of 1,000 words. Words from a writer like Wordsworth make you appreciate what words are worth.
Brevity is the soul of wit.
Of course, our minds do not function in a direct fashion. To our thrill and our dismay, they spin through convolutions at speeds that suck all manner of debris to a core idea. And the words spill from us in tangled excess.
But here’s where writing saves us. Writing cuts and pastes across time—taking as much time as a writer chooses to invest. And the wise writer will wallow in time, for he understands that his writing must breach the familiarity of his thought language to emerge clean and readable.
The secret of good writing lies in the writer’s effort to strip every sentence to its essential components. The leaner the line—the more distilled of filler—the more power the sentence commands. But how do we know what to cut and what to keep? Perhaps the answer isn’t as difficult as we presume.
By understanding wordiness and training our eye to spot it, we can examine our work to prune, consolidate, and revise any of its five forms.
|TYPES OF WORDINESS||SOLUTION|
|1. Meaningless Words||Delete words that mean little or nothing.|
|2. Implied Words||Delete words whose meaning a reader can infer.|
|3. Redundant Words||Delete words that repeat the meaning of other words.|
|4. Wordy Phrases||Consolidate phrasing to a word.|
|5. Inflated Words||Replace with natural words.|
In the next few posts, we’ll take a look at each pitfall and learn how to avoid it.
Eliminate Meaningless Words
In early drafts most of us regurgitate a slew of nothing words—meaningless throat-clearing gestures that, in conversation, buy us time to think. But writing aims to showcase our content, and through tricks of the trade, one of which involves plucking nothing words from the page, we conceal our thought processes and begin sifting through the spill.
|virtually||more or less||actually||really|
Good writing actually relies on certain factors that basically entail various revisions more than any given quality particular to the first draft.
Stripped of muck, the above sentence becomes straightforward.
Good writing relies on revision more than the quality of the first draft.
Remove the small words that qualify how you feel, how you think, and what you saw: a bit, a little, somewhat, sort of, kind of, rather, quite, very, too, pretty much, in a sense, literally, incredibly, totally, simply, etc.
Rather than writing a bit confused or sort of tired, a little depressed, and kind of angry, show confusion, fatigue, depression. Be mad as hell and don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is bold and direct. Trim the gristle from the meat, and serve your readers a fine cut.
Remember: We should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then.
Remove Implied Words
Implied words enter the mix when we try to explain something and our thoughts become snarled before they hit the page. At such times, maybe we have the foresight to step back, take a walk and clear our heads. Often, though, we don’t. Often, we forge ahead until we get it down. The trouble with pushing in confusion is the blind spot that lingers in the wake of over-thinking. We don’t recognize the complexity with which we’ve written the passage.
A good idea in this situation is to return after a break and interrogate each word. You’ll likely find a number that can’t defend their place.
A simple example:
Imagine someone attempting to learn the rules for playing the game of chess.
If we question each word, we find—
- Learning implies someone trying.
- Playing a game implies rules.
- Chess is a game.
The sentence can be pared down to—
Imagine learning the rules of chess.
It is with words as with sunbeams, the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.
Another way implied words land on the page is when we write a word and include its category, as in: period of time, day of the week, season of the year, soft to the touch, round in shape, peculiar in nature, bold in spirit, male in gender, study of science, filled to capacity, visible to the eye, etc.
During that era of history, the city area experienced a population growth of people and sprawling real estate lots shrunk in size and became less in number.
During that era, the city experienced a population growth and sprawling real estate lots shrunk and became unavailable.
Or simply … and sprawling real estate lots became unavailable.
You might find that eliminating needless words involves tweaking the writing. The above sentence, when stripped of redundancy, reveals weak word choice.
The population growth experienced by the city in that era made sprawling real estate lots obsolete.
Or, depending on where the writer intends to take the topic, he might write something like—
The population growth experienced by the city in that era divided sprawling real estate into matchbook lots with privies to neighborhood affairs.
The writer has at his disposal a number of options to choose from. → The writer has options.
Redundancy of All Kinds
Verbal habit, if you didn’t know, can out-survive the most virulent breed of cockroach by decades. Watch what you say, because it’ll find inroads to your work.
Prattle infiltrates our writing with word packages. The two-for-one special refers to the double word colloquialisms. Each time the issue is raised seems simple to write. Double-check, though, to make sure you didn’t write Each and every time…. Choose one or the other, not both.
|hope and trust||hopes and desires||first and foremost||any and all|
|each and every||true and accurate||full and complete||basic and fundamental|
|issues and concerns||if and when||fair and equitable||so on and so forth|
|null and void||more and more||again and again||questions and problems|
|ifs, ands, or buts||always and forever||pins and needles||intents and purposes|
1 + 1 = 1/2. Word packages like one and the same strike us as emphasizing our point, but they do the opposite. They’re cliché, and clichés will never—never, never, never—work in our favor. If the last is not least, then write so readers understand its relevance.
Divide & Conquer Redundant Combos
Another habit to wreak wordiness is the clichéd combo. How these expressions originated baffles the mind when you think about their absurdity. Just the same, they fly onto the page.
Seek and ye shall find. And once found, annihilate.
|absolutely essential||essential or indispensable|
|advance planning||planning, notice, or warning|
|and also||and or also|
|at about||about or at|
Is any future foreseeable? Then don’t write the foreseeable future. Is broad daylight brighter than daylight?
Another redundant combo involves a preposition linked to a verb that incorporates it. Don’t write raising the ante higher. Raise implies higher.
|circle around||return back||penetrate into||continue on|
|repeat again||rise up||improve on||take up|
|regain back||absorb up||cover over||combine together|
|hurry up||lag behind||write down||stand up|
Speaking of prepositions, if you write two back-to-back see if you can swap them out for one, as in, swap them with one. He came out of the woods with an armful of kindling. → He came from the woods with an armful of kindling.
Just as a drawing should have no unnecessary lines or a machine no unnecessary parts, a sentence should contain no unnecessary words and a paragraph no unnecessary sentences. Every word must serve a purpose. Every word must be indispensable.