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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Writer Mag Column 5: Wordiness

Healthful food doesn’t have fillers--and neither should your writing

Emulsifiers, preservatives, thickening agents and fillers. Don’t those sound delicious? Well, no. You don’t want to fill your body with these unhealthful items. Neither do you want to fill your writing with wordy phrases, unfocused fillers and rambling blather. Food companies increase the shelf life of their products by adding all these substances. Many writers are equally guilty of increasing the width of their prose by adding unneeded words and phrases.

This Criminal Sentence, written by someone I’ll call Mr. Lazy, illustrates what I mean:

“Due to the vast knowledge of building retail structures, the company was able to quickly and accurately identify the necessary steps to ensure complete satisfaction and overall success.”

I took this from something I edited recently, and I felt very full after reading a whole page of sentences like this. Although my eyes read a lot of words, my brain didn’t detect much substance. The sentence is so vague as to be meaningless. It is pure fluff and filler. This depresses me, because nine out of 10 nutritionists--I mean, copy editors--will tell you that such sentences are as prevalent as the fillers in processed food. It’s time to crack down on such flabby writing. You are no longer allowed to be like Mr. Lazy. You must become Mr. or Ms. Succinct. Throw away those old recipe books that you’ve been following. It’s time to create some nouveau cuisine: substantial sentences that actually say something concrete.

Before we can cook up some better sentences, we need to learn what ingredients are bad for our sentences’ health. We want to avoid three levels of wordiness.

Wordy phrases come first. Lots of phrases might qualify for this list. Loyal readers may remember that I covered quite a few wordy phrases in my previous article, “A bunch of has-beens.” They include “it is/was,” “there is/are/were,” “is/are able to,” “has/have/had the capability to” and “has/have/had the ability to.” Be sure to memorize this list and avoid using these fatty fillers. Here’s a short stack of some other thickening agents that you should remove from your pantries because these empty calories add little to your work:

1. “The fact that,” found in phrases such as “due to the fact that” and “in spite of the fact that.” Despite the fact that you might want to use the words “the fact that” in your sentence, I recommend that you don’t. Examine this Criminal Sentence, taken from a book about a prison camp: “Adding to our pile of misery was the fact that we also weren’t in a permanent camp.” Seventeen words. Let’s be more succinct: “Not being in a permanent camp added to our pile of misery.” Twelve words there.

2. “On a … basis” and “in a … manner.” These are longwinded ways to avoid using an adverb. Take this Criminal Sentence: “He trips in a clumsy manner on an ongoing basis.” Why not just save words and say, “He trips clumsily every day”? We don’t need to be afraid of adverbs. Adverbs are our friends! Used sparingly, they add a bit of spice.

3. “Each and every.” Each and every time I see this phrase, it grates on my nerves! “Each” means “every,” so there’s no need to repeat yourself, repeat yourself. Pick one, please.

4. “The reason is because” and “the reason is that.” “The reason” and “because” are identical twins that mean the same thing, so you don’t need to say both together. The reason I say this is because it’s wordy. “The reason is that” is also a bad filler. Take this Criminal Sentence: “The reason that she doesn’t like okra is that it’s slimy.” Although I don’t mind the slime, I do mind this wordy sentence. Let’s just use the word “because” somewhere else in the sentence: “She doesn’t like okra because it’s slimy.”

5. “And,” “also,” “in addition” and “too.” I often see more than one of these in the same sentence. This is redundant in addition to being redundant, too.

Wordy sentence structure constitutes the second level of wordiness. The main culprits here are passive voice and nominalizations, covered in Chapters 1 and 2 of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier by yours truly. I’ll be tackling passive voice in my next column, so here I’m going to focus on nominalizations, which lead to wordy, soporific sentences.

You likely use nominalizations all the time without knowing what they are. When you create a nominalization, you nominalize, which means you turn a verb or an adjective into a noun. Take this nine-word Criminal Sentence: “She made a careful selection of the fabric’s color.” In this sentence, the writer for some reason changed the verb “to select” into the noun “selection.” There’s nothing grammatically wrong with the sentence, but it’s just too wordy for my taste. Compare it to this improved sentence, which doesn’t use a nominalization: “She carefully selected the fabric’s color.” Six words instead of nine. The usage of (hint, hint) nominalizations by everyone must stop! Nominalizations and passive voice are two of the main wordy sentence structures. Learn what they are and avoid them.

The last level of wordiness is what I call the “BS factor.” Mr. Lazy, the creator of that awful Criminal Sentence up front, fell prey to the BS factor. I can see why he fell into this trap. I remember BS-ing my way through a school essay that had to be at least 1,000 words. My ideas weren’t fully formed, so I tried to make myself sound knowledgeable by fluffing things up. (I fluffed grammatically, of course.) Just as I did all those years ago, Mr. Lazy was trying to puff up the importance of whatever was he was saying, he didn’t know what to say, and he was trying to fill space. Unfortunately, many writers are like Mr. Lazy and the high school me: They drone on without saying much.

How did Mr. Lazy and all these filler-happy writers get this way? Well, we can perhaps blame our high school and college English teachers. Rather than teaching students to produce clear and meaningful sentences, they promoted grammar rules and a word minimum. I’m all in favor of grammar rules, but I think a self-imposed word maximum would help all of us write more succinctly. The best writing teacher I ever had assigned us one-paragraph essays. Having little space to say a lot sure helped me focus.

Now it’s time for that nouveau recipe you’ve been waiting for. Following these simple rules will ensure that you’ll write things short and sweet:

1. Never use the thickening agents/wordy phrases listed earlier.

2. Avoid passive voice, nominalizations and other weak sentence structures. Read my article on getting rid of weak verbs. If you follow the instructions there, you’ll become less wordy and your sentences will be more substantive. Read The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier if you want to learn even more.

3. Focus your thoughts and know what you want to say. Use specific facts, specific nouns and specific verbs. Don’t make general statements that anyone could make. This is hard, so you may have to work at it.

4. Realize--and admit--that your writing is wordy. You’re allowed to write down unfocused ideas and to ramble a bit in a rough draft. But your final version must be much more concise. Put aside your draft for a while and then cut it down--perhaps way down. Examine every phrase and shorten, shorten, shorten.

I don’t have any Criminal Sentences or Paragraphs for you to rewrite today, but I would like you to examine your own writing critically. Find something you’ve written recently and see if you can follow the new recipe. If you want to send the before and after versions to me at, I would love to see them. Unlike most nutritionists, I will certainly allow you to use plenty of shortening.

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