Whether you’re writing an article, a short story, or a book length fiction or non-fiction, your product consists of smaller pieces – paragraphs, sentences, phrases, clauses, words. The clarity and impact of your message depends on precise selection of words and word combinations. When you use more words than you need, you risk losing your reader’s attention and confusing your meaning.
Many new writers use more words than needed to make a point or tell a story. But excess words can also be found in early drafts of more experienced writers.
Let’s use my writing as an example. Here is the first draft of the opening paragraphs of this article:
“As a runner, I know that being able to perform well at long distances requires
that I tighten up on my form and speed at shorter distances. The ability to run
long distances and for a long time comes from doing progressively longer runs
to build endurance. In other words, in order to run long and well I have to
combine both quality short runs and progressively longer runs.
Writing is similar. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing an article, a short story,
or a book length fiction or non-fiction, your creative product consists of many
smaller pieces – paragraphs, sentences, phrases, clauses, words. How clear your
message is and the impact that message makes depends on very precise selection
of the best words and word combinations, and then applying them frugally. In
other words, when you choose to use more words than you really need, the end
result can be taking the chance of losing your reader’s attention as well as
confusing your meaning.
One of the most common errors writers make is choosing to use more words than they
really need to make a point or tell a story. Usually it’s a new writer, but excess
words can also be found in early drafts of more experienced writers.”
See the difference? The original version is mired in extra words, and the result is a tedious read. Let’s look at common culprits in the word-heavy version.
Edit Out the Non-Essential
Look at the first paragraph of the original version. As a runner, I’d hoped to use a running analogy to drive my point home. But an analogy is valuable only when the reader can relate to it. Writers are not all runners. The average non-runner reading that first (and most critical, to hook the reader) paragraph would likely glaze over or be turned off entirely. The running analogy adds nothing to the message. It needed to be edited out – no
matter how painful that was!
Don’t Waste Words /Write Clearly So You Only Have to Say It Once
Although the first paragraph was deleted, something further can be learned from it:
Italicized Version: In other words, in order to run long and well I have to combine both quality short runs and progressively longer runs.
Comment: Had this paragraph remained in the article, “In other words,” would have been a clue to repetition.
Make every sentence add something new, and every word a solid building block for your sentences. You can eliminate excess words further by studying the parts of your sentences. Critically assess clauses and reduce them to phrases. The phrase “when you choose to use” was easily pared to “when you use.” And “the end result can be taking the chance of losing…” is much cleaner as “you risk losing….” Then reduce those cleaner phrases to single words when you can.
These are the leading causes of writing that needs tightening. But there are others.
Avoid empty openers (also called expletives)
Examples include “there is,” and “there were.” Reword the sentence with a stronger beginning:
Empty opener: There were medals awarded to every finisher of the race.
Revised: Every finisher received a medal.
Use plain language and keep it simple
Don’t try to sound like a bureaucrat or a Supreme Court Judge. Write plainly. Your message will be clearer and more readers will understand it. One way to do this is to make your writing more conversational. Write the way you speak. Then read what you’ve written out loud. Does it sound natural to you?
Try always writing in the active voice
The passive voice uses more words and isn’t as strong as the active voice. For example:
Passive: The order was delivered to Allen by FEDEX.
Active: FEDEX delivered the order to Allen.
Instead of using words like really, very, or extremely to intensify another word, try replacing the two words with one stronger word.
Modifier: Sara was extremely happy.
Revised: Sara was thrilled.
It’s harder and more time consuming to write concisely. You have to think about every word you use. You review draft after draft searching for the phrases you can tighten, the words you can cut. We should be getting better at writing tightly, as we gain experience with texting and Tweeting. But we persist as wordily as in the past in much of our writing away from electronic venues. Cutting words is painful. Every word you write is important
to you on some level, and throwing each one away is like discarding a piece of yourself – like my running analogy.
But we all want to write well. Writing takes discipline, and this is just one aspect of that discipline. In the end, when you receive that acceptance from a magazine or publisher or agent, isn’t it worth it?