At a recent writing workshop, I asked students to name their biggest writing hang-ups. Not surprisingly, quite a few said their writing suffers from excessive wordiness.
When I'm editing the work of others, there are five simple things I look for that, when eliminated, make an immediate difference. Next time you write a press release, brochure, e-mail, etc., take a moment to see if you can identify and eliminate any of these issues.
1. Prepositions. Because of their linking nature - connecting nouns, pronouns and phrases to other words in a sentence - prepositions tend to bring in extra words and are also a red flag for introducing a two- or three-word phrase that includes another noun or actor. Certainly I'm not suggesting you write without using prepositions; just be sure whenever you see one, you consider whether you can make your point more succinctly. (You can find an exhaustive list of prepositions on Wikipedia.org.)
2. Going to... The expression "going to" automatically adds unnecessary words to your sentence that can be eliminated simply by replacing "going to" with the expression "will." Example: Instead of "We are going to be focusing on," or "We are going to focus on...," Try: "We will focus on..."
3. Help. Many writers insert the word "help" prior to the key active verb in their sentence, such as: "We are working to help create awareness..." or, "Our solution is helping to deliver added benefits." But by eliminating "help" you remove ambiguity and make a stronger statement. Try: "We ARE CREATING awareness." Or, "Our solution IS DELIVERING added benefits."
4. That. "That" just may be the most unnecessarily used word in the English language. In The Careful Writer, Theodore M. Bernstein dedicates nearly five pages to an explanation of when "that" should or should not be used. Conversely, much to the dismay of grammarians everywhere, my advice here is simple: Read the sentence aloud without using the word "that" and if it still makes perfect sense, leave it out.
5. Forms of the verb "be." Words like am, is, are, was, were, being and been simply imply a state of existence. There's no action. There's nothing that can be seen, heard, felt, smelled or tasted in the mind's eye. Any time you see these verb forms, it's a red flag that the "actor" in your sentence is lazy. It's essentially just "sitting there." Get it up off the couch and DOING something!
BONUS TIP: One of the places wordiness likes to hide is in the front half of sentences. Be on the lookout for long introductory clauses that act like a story line building up to your main point. Readers will thank you for getting to your point quickly and then providing any background or follow-up information later.
Copyright Bon Mot Communications LLC 2009
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