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”
Long sentences usually waste words, needing extra coordination. Several short sentences work better.
“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.”
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!
- Though notice sometimes it IS needed ;) [↩]