The mark of a good writer is the ability to say what needs to be said in as few words as possible. Getting straight to the point, without trying to impress or confuse the reader, is the best way to communicate. Deleting unnecessary, wordy, implied, and repetitive phrases can lead to effective sentences.
Every writer needs a good editor, whether it’s another person or an internal editor who can adequately judge, cut, and rewrite sentences. Yes, an editor will check for grammar and punctuation problems, but a good editor will also trim down text to make it shorter and more readable. Authors, however, who want to be good writers, should not depend solely on an editor; they should also strive to hone their own writing skills and create the most effective and to-the-point sentences possible. Revision is all important because it’s the process through which wordiness can be changed into effective communication.
When writing a first draft, the important thing is simply to get everything you want to say down on the page, no matter how badly written it might end up being. But once that first draft is written, revision is required. A good author will realize that revision includes cutting, trimming, and manicuring the sentences so they are as neat and precise as possible. Just like a gardener, a writer realizes it is not enough to have a bunch of words (flowers), but that those words need to be neat and orderly and not so profuse that the meaning (the best flowers in the garden) are not noticed amid a bunch of words (weeds). Every word should count and extraneous words should be deleted.
Whether you are writing a paragraph, an article, a short story, or a novel, a good rule of thumb is to aim to cut down 10 percent from the first to the second draft. If you write a novel of 80,000 words with your rough draft, your revision may well end up being 72,000 words after you trim down every little word and phrase you don’t need. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider the need to develop your writing and add details or examples to back up your points, but you should also look to eliminate wordy phrases and places where you tend to repeat yourself.
I have many friends who have taught writing over the years, and I’ve heard their war stories about the writing mistakes their students make. One difficulty students usually have is to fill the space required to write a four-page essay or whatever the teacher assigns them. And when the students do fill that space, they often do so with extraneous words that say nothing. I have often thought an effective way to teach writing would be to have a student assigned to write a 2,000 word essay and then actually count the words and make the student adhere exactly to that word count—not 1,967 words, not 2,038, but exactly 2,000 words. The student would then revise until every word counted.
In the movie “A River Runs Through It” there’s a great scene where the father teaches his son how to write. The son brings his essay to his father, and the father crosses out passages and then tells him to redo it—and make it half as long. Learning how to say something in 2,000 words and then to say the same thing in 1,000 words, or even 50 words is something authors must constantly do when writing and talking about their books. Such practices are effective exercises. Whatever piece of writing you are working on, I challenge you to cut it by 10 percent, and then 50 percent, to see whether you can hone down its language to the most necessary words.
Following are some words and phrases I frequently see overused or that are completely unnecessary. I’ll also give you a couple of examples of big words that can be replaced with smaller ones. Just as two or three words can be replaced with one, it’s equally important to take the three syllable word and replace it with the one syllable word whenever possible.
I often see sentences that begin with phrases like:
I remember one time when I was in sixth grade….
If you lived the experience you are telling us about, it’s obvious that you remember it. It’s implied that it’s one of your memories. It’s sufficient just to say:
When I was in sixth grade….
One Time a Friend of Mine
You’ll notice in the rewrite above that I also deleted “one time.” Let’s look at another sentence using that phrase:
One time a friend of mine taught me how to fish.
It’s perfectly fine just to say:
A friend taught me how to fish.
Notice also that I changed “a friend of mine” to “a friend.” Unless the person is someone else’s friend, like “my grandpa’s friend” or “Joe’s friend,” it’s implied that the person is your friend.
Use of “the fact” is hardly ever necessary. For example, you could easily eliminate it in the following sentence:
I cannot change the fact that he does not like me.
Often, “the fact” is part of “due to the fact that” which is even more unnecessary. A good substitute for this wordy phrase is “because.” Why use five words where one will do? Here’s an example:
She put on suntan lotion due to the fact that it was a hot and sunny day.
She put on suntan lotion because it was a hot and sunny day.
Janet called to complain due to the fact that her billing was in complete disarray.
What a mess of a sentence! Why not just say:
Janet called because her billing is a mess.
Whenever possible, it’s advisable to avoid starting sentences with “There are.” Here’s an example and its rewrite:
There are some researchers who believe that some cats don’t like to eat mice.
Some researchers believe cats don’t like to eat mice.
The sentence’s real subject is “researchers” and “believe” is the verb so put them at the beginning of the sentence where they belong so the sentence is stronger.
Here’s another example:
There are many reasons why you should visit the doctor regularly.
Many reasons exist for why you should visit the doctor regularly.
The original sentence isn’t that bad, but “exist” as the verb allows the sentence’s subject to be at the sentence’s beginning where it rightfully belongs.
In Life (and other obvious places)
Here are some “in” phrases that really irritate me:
- In life
- In the world
- In the world today
- In today’s society
Unless you’re writing about “in death,” it’s implied you’re talking about life. Unless you’re talking about what happens on other planets, it’s implied it’s in the world, and unless you’re comparing the present to the past, it’s implied it’s today. Here are a few examples of when these phrases are used and how to reword them:
- In life, we must always strive to do our best. Obviously, we strive in life since we can’t strive in death, so just delete “In life” completely.
- In the world today, our natural resources are becoming depleted. In this case, you can just say “Today, our natural resources are becoming depleted.” Or better, “Our natural resources are being depleted.”
- In today’s society, girls are not afraid to show their belly-buttons. Again, here “Today” may be all you need at the beginning of the sentence, or you could say, “Girls are no longer afraid to show their belly-buttons.” The “no longer” implies that the present is different than the past.
Big vs. Small Words
Never use a big word where a small word will do. People who tend to use big words usually do so because they are trying to impress someone, and big words used to impress are often misused by people who don’t really know how to use them anyway. Even when using such words properly, trying to impress someone should never take the place of communicating with that person. Here’s a perfect example. I once went to a conference where the speaker presented a paper about a classic novel, and the speaker kept going on and on about the main character’s interior perceptions versus her exterior perceptions. What the speaker was really talking about was the difference between what the character saw and how she felt. A lot less impressive sounding, but a lot easier to understand.
I’m not the first person to complain about the word “utilize” or “utilization.” I have yet to find a time when “use” and “usage” don’t work just as well. Just as you should aim to shorten two or three words down to one that means the same thing, so you should aim to use a one syllable word rather than a three syllable one.
Writing dialogue tags are another perfect example. If an author writes effective dialogue, readers do not need to be told how the words were said with a tag like “Joe expressed adamantly.” The words Joe says should be enough to show that they were said adamantly. It is sufficient after what Joe says, simply to say, “Joe said.” If you use any words other than “said, replied, asked” for a dialogue tag, you’re being wordy. There’s no need for “questioned, queried, wondered, responded, retaliated, reiterated, exclaimed, suggested, proclaimed, declared, chortled, snorted” etc. Stick with “said” and rewrite what was said so Joe’s meaning is there in the tone of how he says the words.
Finding the right word takes skill, but every word counts. Find the words that make the point as quickly as possible before you lose the reader in a flood of unnecessary words that fail to communicate. Big words and wordiness are the bane of communication and they don’t impress anyone.
Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.