I came across this memorable graphic while putting together a writing webinar last fall for a government client. It struck me then — and still does now — how easy it is to be wordy. Why is concise writing so hard?
“Vigorous writing is concise,” emphasized renowned Cornell English professor William Strunk, Jr., author of the first editions of The Elements of Style. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
In conversation, people often use “filler” words that add little to the meaning of their sentences. In writing, these filler words and phrases become more obvious and act as delays in getting the reader to your point.
One way to write more concisely is to study authors who are wordsmith minimalists such as Ernest Hemingway.
Also, be a good self-editor — shorten your sentences; don’t be ambiguous. If you can say something in a few well-chosen words, do it. A great resource I found online is this eHow.com article, “How to Write With Concise Words,” which advocates that you build your vocabulary and practice writing — anywhere and everywhere.
A wordiness warning sign are qualifiers such as “hopefully,” “practically,” “basically,” “really,” and “mostly.”
Most individuals usually think that many kittens are generally pretty cute. (11 words)
Most individuals think that kittens are cute. (7 words)
Another common problem is overusing prepositional phrases (such as in, over, of, for, at, etc.)
The politician talked about several of the merits of after-school programs in his speech. (14 words)
The politician touted after-school programs in his speech. (8 words)
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has an excellent handout that tackles common writing style problems (including wordiness) with guidance on how to correct it.
And, if you think English teachers, journalists, bloggers, and professional communicators are alone in wanting less wordiness, think again. The federal government is legislating that agencies use plain English when communicating with the public. Check out this AP story that hit online papers nationally earlier this month, and you’ll see what’s coming when the Plain Writing Act goes into effect in October.
Where have you seen wordiness at its worst? Share examples here.