Make your prose lean in 2015

Posted on Jan 5, 2015 in Center News

At the start of a new year, like many of us, I groan with the post-holiday feeling of having eaten more chocolate and cheese—and exercised less—than I should. I feel the burden, real or imagined, of excess calories slowing me down. And now that the parties are over, the holiday candles back in boxes, the red and green sweaters safely stowed, I’m eager to refocus and trim down, leaner and sleeker than the year before.

Wordiness in my sentences reminds me of those unneeded calories, except that it affects others more than me. Using nine words where five will serve slows our readers down. Multiply those excess words by six or twenty (or a hundred!) sentences on a web page or report, and your reader is slogging through your prose like a shopper in a department store’s returns line the day after Christmas.

If one considers the fact that there are so many of us who in our writing have a tendency to indulge ourselves—in an interesting parallel with the aforementioned sweets—on words and phrases that feel good as we type them but which, if one pauses to reflect a moment on their actual effectiveness, contain little actual information, it will be clear why prose can so commonly have the ultimate quality of inefficiency in terms of meaning and clarity conveyed per word.

Oops! I just couldn’t resist that delicious platter of Unnecessary Words and Formal Style. Let me rephrase: Over-indulging in wordiness as we do sweets produces inefficient prose.

What was the problem with the first version? More than one, but here are a few for starters:

  • If one considers the fact that
  • there are … who
  • with the aforementioned
  • if one pauses to reflect a moment on
  • it will be clear why
  • in terms of

 

These all “taste” good in the drafting, but when I go back and reread, I feel a little nauseous. And, like many phrases (and like a little piece of caramel-filled chocolate), one of these every so often doesn’t hurt much. Instead, their accumulation encumbers the sentence.

If you’re reading this blog, chances are, you know all of this already. I know it too, and I’m constantly pointing these principles out in my teaching and consulting. Yet, I still find myself “indulging” in my own writing. My light-hearted extreme example above was frighteningly easy to write. Without a second set of eyes or some time away from the draft, I’m as liable as the next writer to hit Publish or Send before I’ve written my best prose.

During this short-lived season of fresh energy and resolution for the new year, along with our zeal to go on more walks and cut back on cream soups, let’s also resolve to take the time and get the help we need to firm up those sentences, trimming out the words that don’t pull their own weight.

Dr. CraneAbout the author: Dr. Chip Crane is a writing consultant and trainer in Washington, D.C., helping clients with plain language in career development writing, technical writing, office correspondence, and other workplace documents. Chip also teaches medieval literature and technical writing at the University of Maryland.

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