Write tight

Flabby writing loses readers and marks, write tight!

Photo by Dick Rochester

In the real world flabby writing loses readers. For students, it’s worse flabby writing loses marks. Learn to write tight and gain marks!

In our intro class, students write a summary of the message a biblical text had for its intended audience. This should be one or two sentences and less than 50 words.

Writing a summary is like packing for a journey, some people want to take everything! Then it is an exercise in writing tight. Most students write much as they speak. In speaking we include padding – unneeded words and phrases that allow us time to think. Writing tight involves removing the padding.

Googling “tight writing” produced lots of advice, but many writers could not practise what they preached. (Several high ranked hits were written on contract. A higher word count means more pay for the writer ;)

So, here’s Tim’s guide to writing tighter

Don’t repeat yourself

If a word occurs several times in a paragraph some uses may not be needed. Using two words where one will do (tautology) is wasteful: “tightly stretched” only says the same as “stretched”.


Writers should have something to say. They should say it. Often, though, we also want to say other things. Tight writing omits such diversions. It keeps focused. The asides that often pepper this blog in brackets or as footnotes are examples that I should cut! (Except that I like the effect, and am not trying to save words, and anyway I try to help the reader by using parentheses to mark digressions off from the body text ;)

Don’t be passive

Good Grammar checkers (like MS Word used to have) hate passives. They are correct. Passive sentences are longer, and usually less clear: “The ball was kicked by John” vs. “John kicked the ball”

Cut conjunctions

Long sentences usually waste words, needing extra coordination. Several short sentences work better.

Very that

“That” is often unnecessary. It can often be pruned, it sometimes signals other words that1 can be pruned. Extra adjectives are also an easy target “very” for example usually adds little. Karen Luna Ray offers this sentence: “See how many unnecessary words that you can remove from this very lengthy sentence that I am writing..” Which becomes: “See how many unnecessary words you can remove from this sentence.”

To be or not to be

The verb “to be” often encourages wasted words. Compare: “She is a powerful writer” with “She writes powerfully.”

Avoid adverbs

Often we employ adverbs when a stronger verb does the job better. Suzanne Lieurance compares:

Flabby: She smiled slightly at the photographer.
Fit: She grinned at the photographer.

Above all, rewrite right

We seldom manage to write paragraphs, and even sentences, right first time. Edit cutting the flab. Read your text aloud. Read it silently. Each reading will show fat to prune.

Have a sit-down and a nice cup of tea

After a break (better a good night’s sleep, but a cup of tea will do), edit again. Cut again!

  1. Though notice sometimes it IS needed ;) []

6 comments on “Write tight

  1. Mike Aubrey

    You’re kidding, right?

  2. Tim

    About what?

  3. Mike Aubrey

    The style comments are find generally, but when you move into issues of grammar you’re moving onto shaky ground.

    Take the adverbs statements:
    Those two supposed examples are completely irrelevant to the point–and thus don’t make the point. Nobody would say “She smiled slightly” if her smile was huge and nobody would say “she grinned” when she barely cracked a smile. The *meaning* of the sentences are completely different and would never be used in the same context to describe the same event. And yet these are supposed to convince me that using a “strong” verb is better than an adverb? Not a chance. Now…maybe if there was some actual empirical evidence that this was true, I’d be convinced, but I’m yet to see it.

    More importantly, there are huge gaps in the English lexicon where we simply do not have a verb that can subsume the meaning of adverb. Take for example the fact that we do not have a verb meaning “to simply have.” There’s no way I can avoid this adverb and completely convey the meaning I intend. Not only is there a lack in our lexical possessions, but that lack appears at a very basic and fundamental level.

    And on passives…there’s nothing wrong with them. They have a particular discourse function–I found at least two in your post that you used absolutely beautifully and your writing did not suffer a single bit. In fact, that particular paragraph would have been horrendous if you have tried to use the active voice. See if you can find it…

    Also on “that.” The particular sentence where you footnote “that” as being sometimes necessary doesn’t actually need a that…well…at least not in Canadian English, I suppose I cannot speak for Australia.

    In any case, cf. http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497

  4. Tim

    OK :) now I understand much better. Though I think you missed my point, the issue I was addressing was not “What are some rules writers should obey?” but “How can one use less words to say the same thing (sometimes more powerfully)?” I’ll agree I accepted the adverb example too quickly, it’s not a good one. (Though I think the “simply” in your reply is actually padding that only adds weak emphasis ;)

    BTW I can’t speak for Australia, round here people claim Australians can barely speak themselves!

    On rules, of course, rules are made to be broken, some passives work well, some adverbs are absolutely necessary (or at least like that one) highly desirable. But often both just waste words. And [breaking the “rule” about not starting sentences with conjunctions] when students are asked by cruel teachers to write to tight deadlines, or when bloggers write for hastily scanning readers, or indeed just about anytime one writes nowadays, words are too precious to waste!

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