by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker
In Part I of this series, I gave some tips and examples for streamlining your writing to make your message more accessible and compelling. In Part II, we saw some specific examples of words and phrases to cut or reduce, to write more powerfully.
Here, we continue to explore ways to cut out the deadwood by avoiding repetitions and convoluted phrasing and going for clear, concise writing. Remember, it’s about direct communication and carrying your reader along with the story. Don’t muddle your message with a lot of extra words that just clutter up the sentence and hamper the free flow of ideas.
Avoid repetitions and redundancies in all their forms: two words meaning the same thing; saying something in five or six words when you can express it with one or two; and phrases or sentences that keep saying the same thing over and over in different ways.
Redundant Phrases. Avoid this kind of “repetitive redundancy”:
Repetitive phrase: Concise equivalent:
honest truth truth
future plans plans
regular routine routine
past history history
final outcome outcome
extremely unique unique
repeat again repeat
totally unanimous unanimous
sudden impulse impulse
unexpected surprise surprise
overused cliché cliché
What’s the problem? It’s obvious — the only kind of truth is honest truth, an impulse is sudden, repeat means to do something again, a surprise is by nature unexpected, and so on.
Cut out the deadwood, words that restate what is obvious by the rest of the sentence, words that just repeat what you’ve already said, words that are just adding clutter to your sentence. For example, the phrases in brackets are redundant here:
We passed an abandoned house [that nobody lived in] on a deserted street [with no one around].
At this [point in] time, [the truth is that] complaints are increasing [in number], but I don’t see that as a problem [to be solved].
Cluttering your sentences with too many unnecessary words can subliminally irritate your reader. Here a few examples of this “little word pile-up” tendency:
in spite of the fact that although
as a result of because
came in contact with met
at this point in time now
during the time that while
he is a man who he
make use of use
with reference to about
Here are some examples, altered and disguised from my fiction editing, of trimming excess words:
Before: He was shooting off his mouth in the bar last night telling everybody that he was going to find the bastard that ratted on him.
After: He was shooting off his mouth in the bar last night about finding the bastard that ratted on him.
Before: Jennifer ran along the tunnel and up the stone steps to the walkway. She hesitated for only a moment at the top in order to jam the hand gun she was holding into her waistband and give her time to figure out where to run.
After: Jennifer ran along the tunnel and up the stone steps to the walkway. At the top, she stopped to jam the gun into her waistband and figure out where to run.
Finally, avoid convoluted phrasing and leave out unnecessary little details that just serve to distract the reader, who wonders for an instant why they’re there and if they’re significant:
Before: He had arrived at the coffee machine and was punching the buttons on its front with an outstretched index finger when a voice from behind him broke him away from his thoughts.
After: He was punching the buttons on the coffee machine when a voice behind him broke into his thoughts.
In the first example, we have way too much minute detail. What else would he be punching the buttons with besides his finger? And we don’t need to know which finger or that it’s outstretched. Everybody does it pretty much the same. Avoid having minute details like this that just clutter up your prose.
Before: The officer was indicating with a hand gesture a door that was behind and off to the right of McKay. Angular snarl stuck to his face, he swung his head around to look in the direction the other officer was pointing.
After: The officer gestured to a door behind McKay. Snarling, he turned to look behind him.
Before: “Bastards. Why am I always the last to know?” Pivoting, the detective walked in the direction of the station's front desk with a purposeful, nearly aggressive, gait. He shoved himself bodily through the swinging door and locked eye contact with the uniformed officer on reception duty.
After: “Bastards. Why am I always the last to know?” Pivoting, the detective marched toward the front desk. He slammed through the swinging door and glared at the officer on reception duty.
Copyright © Jodie Renner, May 2012
Also, see my article entitled “Clear, Concise, Powerful Nonfiction Writing.”
Next: Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE), and One Plus One Equals One-Half