We encounter them at the office, at the supermarket, on the phone, and especially at social get-togethers.
Who are they?
They’re the wordiness wizards!
You know the type: they speak slowly and monotonously, giving a long, drawn-out intro to what they want to say. Then they say what they want to say, with all sorts of semi-related stories and anecdotes, until you want to stick your hand into their mouths, pull out the words, and yell, “Just get to the point, for crying out loud!”
While most of us have the social skills to curb the all-too-human tendency to be a wordiness wizard in speech, many of us writers need to take a good look at our prose. We’ve grown up being told that “more is better,” but in writing that is almost always not true.
Why we write too much
Let’s take a look at the roots of wordiness.
- We don’t have enough confidence in our readers’ ability to understand what we are trying to say. We writers want people to “get” every nuance of our prose, and to feel the exact emotion we’ve decided they should feel. We worry: are they too clueless to figure it out for themselves? Or worse: what if they feel the wrong emotion? It’s time to give our readers a little more credit than that. If you write clearly enough, they’ll get it. And who says they have to feel exactly what you want them to feel?
- We don’t have enough confidence in our own ability to transmit what we want to say. Just as some people believe that if you throw enough money at a problem it will go away, many of us writers think that if we throw enough words at our readers they’ll eventually get our point. Remember: one perfect word is better than four non-perfect words trying to say the same thing.
- We have so many great ways to say something that we can’t possibly delete anything. Sometimes we’re so clever, we can’t stand ourselves. We have to let the world know this. And we can’t possibly let our audience read just one sentence instead of three or four that say the same thing. The world will stop turning if people don’t have the privilege of reading every single brilliant thing we have ever thought of. In the words of Stephen King, “Kill your darlings.” Your readers will thank you.
- We want to sound
high classpowerful , brilliantunique, or pompousdramatic. The more highfalutin’ the words we use and the longer it takes to say what we want to say, the better impression we will leave on our readers, no? No.
- We don’t yet have the skills to choose one super, hardworking word that conveys our point better than the five or six weak words we have just chosen. Most of us have had limited opportunities to explore the richness of the English language. And of course there’s always that fine line between the perfect word and sounding pompous and self-conscious. This can be remedied by subscribing to my blog, reading a lot, keeping a list of robust words, and using the thesaurus prudently.
How to eliminate
Get rid of unnecessary adjectives
that are not needed.
As the large, blue subhead shows, sometimes your adjectives are redundant. The word “wordiness” already means “excessive words,” so why use “excessive”? Here are some other examples:
- “He was a big giant.”
- “Her scarf was a purplish-browinish puce.” (this is puce)
- “He rode his bicycle with regular consistency.”
If you can say it with fewer words, then
say it with fewer words do so.
Extra words can obfuscate what you are trying to say and turn your readers off:
- “You may not treat him in a belittling manner” vs. “You may not belittle him.” In this example we eliminated the weak verb-object-preposition-adjective-noun combination with a much stronger and more succinct verb-object.
- “It was the episode of drunkenness that was the last straw in their relationship” vs. “The episode of drunkenness was the last straw in their relationship.” I
veryoften encounter an “it was…that,” “there were…that,” or “he is the type of…who” combination when I’m editing a book or article, and most of the time it can be eliminated. The next three examples will show you how.
- “There are three examples that highlight the tension between mother and daughter” vs. “Three examples highlight the tension between mother and daughter.”
- “He was the type of man who could sit and meditate for hours and hours” vs. “He could sit and meditate for hours.” Notice that I got rid of “man” as well as “the type of,” because the pronoun “he” already tells us he’s male and context will tell us whether he’s a youth or an adult. I also deleted “and hours,” because “for hours” means a very long time, and we don’t
reallyneed to repeat the noun.
- “It is this question which serves as a background for our story” vs. “This question serves as a background for our story.”
Eliminate as many adverbs as possible.
Notice I didn’t say “eliminate adverbs,” because every once in a while you will need them. Sometimes they even add spice to your writing, but be very careful when you decide to leave them in. (Notice I left in the adverb “very” in the previous sentence. One can never be too careful when it comes to those sneaky adverbs.) Check these out:
- “She really tried very hard on the test.” IMHO, the adverb “hard” does all the work over here, and needs no help.
- “She overworked excessively.” As above in the adjective section, you don’t need a modifier if the modified term means the same thing. Here, “overwork” means to work excessively.
Go easy on the “to be” verbs.
Usually, a “to be” verb will demand more verbs, nouns, and prepositions to clarify the situation. Nailing just the right verb, however, will make your writing stronger
as well as and express the thought more clearly.
- “Refraining from looting the city is a demonstration of the morality of their army” vs. “Leaving the spoils demonstrates the morality of the conquering army.” Notice I a. substituted an industrial-strength verb for a “to be” verb, b. tightened up an awkward phrase (“refraining from looting the city”) by using a more powerful one (“leaving the spoils”), and c. eliminated two prepositions (from and of). I chose to leave the second “of” because saying “the conquering army’s morality” sounded bad to my ear (spoilS…demonstrateS…army’S). This is a subtle hint reminding you to read your prose aloud.
- “Determining daylight savings time is determined by objective calculations” vs. “Objective calculations determine daylight savings time.” This is an actual sentence in a book I edited, although nouns have been changed to protect the author’s privacy. It was extra wonky because of the double use of “determine.” Here, the “to be” verb made the sentence passive rather than active. Sometimes we need to use passive case, but here the active case sounds much better.
Using unnecessary words or transitions not only bore the reader, they can come off as arrogant and pseudo-intellectual. They also mean nothing. Here is a short list:
- “It turns out that”
- “It is worthwhile to note that”
- “It is important to note that”
- “More importantly” – Please don’t ever use this phrase. If you must, use “more important.”
Practice makes perfect; you need to write every day. Imitate the greats. If you are merely writing the same long-winded prose day after day, you will be reinforcing your mistakes. When you encounter an example of succinct, tight writing, copy it down and refer to it again and again.
To that end, I recommend signing up for the free version of Evernote, which is a note-taking app for your computer. You can squirrel away all your loose threads in one place, while dividing everything into categories. You can have a section on great writing, one on ideas for stories, one that lists the books you want to read…the possibilities are endless.
Here’s a wonderful article that includes a list of 297 fluffy, redundant, and otherwise unnecessary words and phrases. It has such doozies as “cease and desist,” “close proximity,” “completely destroy,” and “at the present time.” Enjoy it.
Bonus cheat sheet!
Click here for a cheat sheet of my best industrial-strength words. And please add your own heavy-duty words in the comments below; I’m constantly updating the list and would greatly appreciate your input!