Eliminate Weak Writing

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

In my February 16 post, Five (Plus One) Tips for Flawless Copy, I suggested not doing any copy editing until a first draft is completely written. Once you’ve got all your material and have checked all your facts, you’re ready to go through your manuscript more slowly and carefully, checking for basic punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes, but also looking for less obvious but common problems writers often trip over.

Hunt down and eliminate words or phrases that are. . .

Meaningless

Instead of “At this point in time,” say “now.” You can almost always delete these words: really, very, actually, suddenly, and currently.

I’ve started to reduce my use of the word “that” but be careful about omitting it completely. Sometimes the word  is necessary for the rhythm or logic of a sentence.

Redundant and superfluous (see what I did there?)

This should be, you know, blatantly obvious but, sadly, it isn’t. Avoid overstatements such as “catastrophic disaster,” “close proximity,” and “plan in advance.” Another cringe-worthy example is “free gift.” Isn’t a gift, by definition, free? All novels are fiction. All surprises are unexpected.

Also be careful when phrasing actions. For example, “He shrugged his shoulders” or “He nodded his head.” Only shoulders can shrug and only heads can nod.

Ambiguous

“Child killers should be locked up.” Are you talking about children who kill or people who kill children? Reading your work back to yourself s-l-o-w-l-y will help you catch phrasing that might be awkward or easily misinterpreted.

Lacklustre (particularly verbs)

In Words Fail Me, Patricia T. O’Connor writes: “Find an interesting verb and the rest of the sentence will practically take care of itself.” Avoid these:

  • Passive verbs – Instead of “That car was bought by Janice,” write “Janice bought that car.”
  • Equating verbs – Instead of “This action is a denial of human rights,” write “This action denies human rights.”
  • “Making” verbs – Instead of “That experience made me a stronger person,” write “That experience strengthened me.”
  • Verbs that need nouns – Instead of “He gained entrance,” write “He entered.”
  • Verbs that need adverbs – Instead of “He ran quickly,” write “He sprinted.”
  • Verbs that make dialogue awkward – It’s not a rule that you can’t replace “said” with a verb that encapsulates a character’s full response (for example: “I’m glad to hear that,” she smiled.) but don’t overdo it. Use “said” whenever possible because it fades into the background and doesn’t jar the reader.

Descriptive instead of declarative

Every writer has heard it: Show, don’t tell. Sometimes a reminder helps. Show a character’s emotions by his actions instead of telling the reader how he feels or relying on adjectives. Instead of “Roger was very, very angry,” say, “Roger slammed his palm onto the table. The coffee mug fell off the edge and shattered. He didn’t notice.”

Good writing is as much about the words you take out as the words you put in.

What are some other tips you’d add to this list? Please comment below!

Word Play

by Randy Petersen

My first job out of college was editing prayer letters for a mission agency. I admired the missionaries who penned these epistles, but most of them weren’t writers.

During one lazy afternoon at my desk, I tried an experiment. Taking a letter that was badly overwritten, I applied all the Strunk & White guidelines. No passives. Verbs over nouns. Few adjectives. Short sentences. I managed to cut the verbiage in half.

While it was better than the rambling document I started with, it seemed stark, robotic.

I tried again, this time going halfway on those improvement measures.  I allowed some verbs of being and passive constructions. The best modifiers got to stay. If compound sentences tumbled down in an orderly manner, I looked the other way.

This turned out to be the best version of the day.

Learning to Read

Eight years later, I got a freelance job editing books for a literacy project. The publisher gave me two rules: no word more than two syllables and no sentence more than fourteen words. This seemed arbitrary to me, especially the syllables. I could use rhythm, which seems difficult for a novice reader, but not harmonica, which could be easily sounded out. Yet those were the rules and they paid me to follow them.

Despite my initial objections, I found it a great training experience. Through this project, I honed my ability to write simply and clearly. I recommend it as an exercise for you. Could you take a paragraph you’ve written and rewrite it with these two rules? Is the result better or worse? I’m not suggesting this is the way to write everything, but it might give you the ability to tighten your style when you need to.

An Editor’s Wisdom

Let me fast-forward a few more years to an extremely helpful interaction with an editor—though I wasn’t too crazy about it at the time. The editor, whose name was Tim (one of the few details I recall about the incident), asked me for a rewrite of something, and I was initially shocked. My pride kicked in. A professional writer for more than a decade, I had developed a crisp style that many editors liked. It wasn’t weighed down with academic ostentation or religious jargon. And I had learned a lot from that literacy project: compact words in tight sentences.

Tim dared to tell me that my writing was punchy. Noun-verb. Noun-verb. One short sentence after another. I had prided myself on a punchy style—more journalistic than devotional, I thought—but Tim was right. Punchy prose makes readers feel that they’re getting punched. It’s not enjoyable to read.

“Change it up,” Tim said. “Vary your rhythm. A long sentence can be clear if its ideas are in order. And the variation can create a pleasant reading experience.”

The Adams Family

One more stop on this journey of discovery.  Today. I’m working on a project now, creating a collection of material quoted from American Christians of the last four centuries. It’s a fascinating study in styles of communication and how they’ve changed. In general, writers of the past were far more verbose than their modern counterparts. I can’t rewrite these quotations, but I can cut them off when they start to wander. (Ellipses are such wonderful tools!)

But my overwhelming impression about previous generations of wordsmiths is that they loved to write. Abigail Adams took five sentences to tell her husband what I could edit down to one, but clearly she was having a great time finding different ways to make her point. For her, and for many in past centuries, writing was not merely a conduit for ideas; it was a sport, an art, a pastime. Writing was their YouTube.

So maybe it’s okay to use a five-dollar word once in a while—for the fun of it. Maybe a run-on sentence could reflect something delightful about my state of mind. Maybe there’s a pleasing rhythm in a well-turned sentence. Maybe I can forget the rules once in a while and just play.

Fly a Little

The brilliant Joyce Ellis wrote a great piece in this space recently urging us to tighten up on verbal constructions that are redundant or unnecessarily wordy. She is absolutely right. Tight language keeps the reader’s energy with you, and it can free up space elsewhere in your writing (especially if you’re on a word count).

But good writing is not always short writing. Sometimes you need to spread your wings and fly. Have fun with it, and bring your readers along. Let your sentences be as long as they need to be, as we celebrate our delight in this gift of language.

Write Tight

by Joyce K. Ellis

Sitting in a face-to-face conference appointment with a highly revered writer, I trembled as she silently read my devotional article. I clutched my notebook like a shield over my heart, awaiting her reaction.

“This is good,” she said. “I think it’s publishable. Tighten and polish and send it off.”

Ecstatic, I found refuge in a nearby restroom for a quick thank-You-Lord session. Then I realized I didn’t have a clue what she meant by “tighten and polish.” I’ve spent the rest of my career figuring that out.

With shrinking publisher budgets and reader attention spans, we can increase our publishing quotient if we learn to economize with words. Here are a few “cutting” reminders.

Stay Focused

Begin with the big picture. What is the purpose of your nonfiction piece? Write, in one sentence, what it will say (not what it’s about). For example, not this: My article is about how we can strengthen our prayer lives. But something like this: We can strengthen our prayer lives by learning the art of worship, learning the importance of a pure heart, and learning the practice of praying without ceasing. By the way, those would make great subheads.

I call this an article-in-a-nutshell sentence. Does each sentence, paragraph, anecdote, quotation, and statistic support the article’s focus?

Similarly, write a book-in-a-nutshell sentence for your novel and each chapter. Is every action, dialogue exchange, and setting description essential to that scene’s purpose? If not, cut it. (But save it in another file. You may be dumpster-diving for ideas someday and find a way to recycle what you discarded.)

Eliminate Redundancy

Once we shape the big picture, we can start hacking away at smaller pieces of “deadwood,” such as these redundancies:

  • ecstatic with joy. Could we be ecstatic with sadness? Ecstatic is sufficient.
  • down through the long centuries. All centuries consist of exactly one hundred years, none longer than another. Through the centuries will do.
  • mischievous grin on her face. Where else would she be wearing it?
  • She nodded yes, or he shook his head no.

When noting this last redundancy in workshops, I say, “Look at me.” I nod. “This means yes, right?” Then I shake my head. “This means no, right? So we don’t need the yes and no.”

Note: Axing a word here and there can leave room in our word count to develop our theme better.  

Pick One

Writing flows better with wise word choices. Often we use too many words, trying to ensure readers understand, and we wind up sounding like the Amplified Bible. That reference work provides unique insights, but it’s awkward to read.

So, painstakingly pick the best word. Here’s an example: Through Christ we experience the joy and delight of our salvation.

How much difference is there between joy and delight? When you find other multiple-choice synonyms, such as sins and transgressions or sadness and sorrow, in your writing, I hope you’ll hear my little bell-like voice in your head, chiming, “Pick one.”

Streamline

Wordiness tires readers. Keep them engaged by streamlining expressions such as these:

Wordy: Diane inquired as to his reason for coming. [8 words]

Streamlined: Diane asked why he came.[5 words]

Wordy: Jesus often used stories as an effective means of making abstract truths understandable. [13 words]

Streamlined: Jesus often used stories to make abstract truths understandable. [9 words] Or …to clarify abstract truths. [8 words]

Wordy: We need to take time to reflect on what we read. As we do this, we will receive new insights into what God has to say to us. [28 words]

Streamlined: As we reflect on what we read, God will provide new insights. [12 words]

Note: If you want to emphasize taking time, you might retain that part. However, reflecting implies taking time.

Though I’m mathematically challenged, I believe we have saved twenty-three words in these few examples. That offers another sentence or two to develop an important point elsewhere. We don’t want to change the nuance, but such streamlining can enhance precision.

Restructure Prepositional Phrases

Prepositional phrases can also indicate places to simplify. For example, we wouldn’t write the favorite planet of Janet. We’d turn it into a possessive: Janet’s favorite planet.

But when a proper noun isn’t involved, we often miss an opportunity to write tight. Note these examples:

Original: opportunity for self-advancement

Restructured: self-advancement opportunity

Original: her address in London

Restructured: her London address

Original: tablets of stone

Restructured: stone tablets

Little by little, we whittle and whittle—tightening our writing.

Write Lean

Often we ease into a statement instead of hitting it dead on, even in fiction.

Wordy: Michael decided to get even with the bully.

The decision isn’t the important thing here, so we can delete that whole sentence. In context, we will know what Michael decided when we read what he did.

Better: Michael punched the bully in the stomach.

Watch for Trigger Words

Other expressions that slow the flow include these: one of the, there is/are/were, it’s interesting to note that…. I call them trigger words because they trigger a need for “surgery.”

Surgery candidate: One of the fears many of us experience as a reality in our lives is the fear of being alone.

Healthier: Many of us fear solitude.

Surgery candidate: There are many people who have never read the Bible through.

Healthier: Many people have never read the Bible through.

Surgery candidate: It is interesting to note that God didn’t rebuke Peter when he began to sink.

Healthier: God didn’t rebuke Peter when he began to sink. (Let the reader decide whether it’s interesting or not.)

Clean Up Qualifiers

We can slash most qualifying words, such as these: very, slightly, almost, nearly, just, really, and seem to.

Ridiculous example: I just want you to know that I really don’t like to see so many qualifiers in your writing. They seem to be very distracting and almost always make meslightly nauseated.

Cleaned up: Eliminate nonessential qualifiers. They’re distracting, even sickening.

Qualifiers have a place in our language. But cut the nonessential ones.

Go on a Which Hunt

Use your manuscript search capability to find the word which (also who, whom, that)in your piece. Often they can go bye-bye:

  • conversations which are replete with stories [delete which are]
  • people whom we have known [delete whom]
  • Teenagers don’t enjoy the same activities that they did when they were younger. [delete that].

The more we read good writing, carefully edit our own work, and get peer critiques, the more ways we’ll learn to tighten and polish our writing.

Want to communicate clearly and hold reader attention? Eliminate nonessentials.

This blog post is adapted from Joyce’s book Write with Excellence 201: A lighthearted guide to the serious matter of writing well—for Christian writers, editors, and students.