CLARITY CLINIC—4 Steps to Eliminate Wordiness

Last week’s blog shared this tip from Tim Radford’s “25 Commandments for Journalists”:  No one will complain because you made something too easy to understand.

To write clear, easy-to-understand sentences, journalists as well as business and technical writers must eliminate all unnecessary words.  But, when should this word elimination—this editing—take place?  And how do we eliminate unnecessary words?  However tempting to your internal critic, don’t edit while you write. Don’t interrupt the natural flow of your writing. Instead, write quickly and deliberately. While writing, you can use your computer’s yellow highlighter to mark an imprecise word or a rough sentence. After you have written your email or report, you can return to polish those rough spots. During that editing stage, you can apply the following 4 Steps to Eliminate Wordiness. The goal is sentences that can be read once and immediately understood.

1.  Delete words that don’t add meaning.  When we speak, we sometimes use words (such as actually, basically, generally, really, very, and virtually) as stalling devices to give our minds time to get our ideas together. But using those words can suggest that we are hedging and can make our sentences unclear. (For example, does virtually all mean all or most?) When we speak, the words we select become our message. But when we write, we have the opportunity to return to what we have written and delete any words that we have not used purposefully.

Notice the improved clarity of the following sentence’s edited version. Watch for and eliminate similar meaningless words in your own sentences. As William Strunk, Jr., reminds us in his timeless Elements of Style“Make every word tell.”

Original sentence:  Actually we basically anticipate decreasing overtime for individual operators.

Edited sentence:  We anticipate decreasing overtime for operators.

2.  Delete meaningless introductory phrases.  Many writers use meaningless phrases to begin their sentences:  Please be advised that, It has come to my attention that, I would like to take this opportunity to, and It is important to note that are all favorite introductory phrases. But the beginning of an English sentence is a “power position.” Using those phrases takes the spotlight off the topic of a sentence and shines the spotlight onto empty words. If you are concerned about softening tone, don’t stall. Instead, replace those placeholders with words that explain the reason for, or the benefit of, the main message. (To win the reader’s goodwill, the reasons or benefits you mention must resonate with the reader.)  Notice the improved clarity in and effectiveness of the following sentences’ edited versions:

Original sentence:  Please be advised that the updated Service Manual will be available on January 4. [NOTE:  In this example, the message will evoke a neutral or positive response, so the introductory phase can be eliminated.]

Edited sentence:  The updated Service Manual will be available on January 4.

Original sentence:  It has come to my attention that travel expenses for field engineers increased two percent in April. [NOTE:  In this example, the message may evoke a negative response. To change that potentially negative response to a neutral or even positive response, the writer needs to provide the reason for or benefit of the message.]

Edited sentence beginning with a reason:  Because of increased fuel costs, travel expenses for field engineers increased two percent in April. [NOTE:  Facts help to “neutralize” the message.]

Edited sentence beginning with a benefit:  Because of increased customer contact, travel expenses for field engineers increased two percent in April. [NOTE:  In this version, an explanation of benefits helps to “neutralize” the message and wins goodwill for the writer. The words “Because of increased customer contact” align with the reader’s goals.]

 3.  Eliminate weak openings such as It is, There is, and There are. Those expletives are weak placeholders. Put your key word or words—your topic—in the natural subject position at the beginning of the sentence. Notice how the edited sentence spotlights key ideas:

Original sentence:  It is the responsibility of the lead engineer to provide drawing revisions.

Edited sentence:  The lead engineer provides drawing revisions. OR:  The lead engineer will provide drawing revisions.

4.  Eliminate unnecessary repetition.  Many of us remember school assignments requiring us to write 500-word essays that, as we grew older, became 10-page papers. The unintended consequence of fulfilling those word and page count requirements was our developing a repertoire of redundant phrases that find their way into our on-the-job writing. Examples include mutually agree, completely finished, end result, recurring habit, initial preparation, personal beliefs, and future plans. Instead of using those phrases, good writers (understanding that “less is more”) select single words that precisely communicate their ideas.

Now you have a chance to practice applying those 4 steps to Eliminate Wordiness to your on-the-job documents. In our next blog, we’ll explore 4 More Steps to Eliminate Wordiness.


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