Are there too many words in your draft? In some cases—especially if you’re writing for publication or funding—you’ll be asked or required to stay within a length limit. But how do you know what to cut out without losing important content?
Here’s an update on my first “Instant Weight Loss” posting, with 2 more strategies to help you manage excess weight in your prose:
- Look out for instances of “there is/are” or “it is.” Where you can, rephrase these starting with a noun + verb.
How and why this works: These constructions are called expletives (not to be confused with swear words!). They have the effect of delaying the action or main point of the sentence. Jane Austen uses a brilliant expletive in the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that . . . ” Only at the very end of the sentence do we learn that all rich men should be out looking for wives (at least, according to certain mothers of marriageable daughters). By delaying that ironic point, Austen sets the tone of dry humour for this immortal social commentary.
But for us mere mortals, expletives may come across as “throat-clearing” and can make writing harder to read. Compare “There is research indicating how overuse of social media can contribute to feelings of isolation” with “Research indicates how overusing . . .” (see below for turning a noun + of into “ing”). I know: we deleted only 3 words here, but those deletions add up to potentially dozens of words you didn’t really need. That can make all the difference!
- Look for the passive voice. Overusing it may contribute to wordiness.
How and why this works: The passive voice puts the object or receiver of action first. The verb has two parts: a form of “to be” followed by a past participle (“ed”). The performer of the action comes last, or the performer can be left out altogether.
The dog was bitten by the man. = passive voice
[object] [“to be” + past participle] [performer of action]
The man bit the dog. = active voice
[performer of action] [action] [object]
The passive is more concise if you can legitimately leave out the performer: that is, your reader already knows who or what performed the action or it doesn’t matter who did it. But if you can’t (or shouldn’t) leave out the performer, then changing passives to actives reduces wordiness and enhances clarity.
- Delete unnecessary prepositions such as prior to, with regard to, on the basis that . . .
How and why this works: Prepositions signal relationships in time and space. With few exceptions, we can’t write meaningful sentences without them. But when we use too many, the result is cluttered prose that makes readers work harder than they should. Effective editing can spot and reduce phrases that add bloat rather than substance.
And while you’re at it, search for your favourite “fillers” and delete at least some of them. Favourite fillers may include prepositional phrases like “in order to” or adverbs like “basically” or “essentially.”
- Turn a noun + preposition (“the … of”) into “-ing.” For example, instead of “The communication [noun] of [preposition] a clear message,” say “Communicating a clear message.” Or instead of “The intent [noun] of [preposition] this press release is to give reassurance [noun (nominalized) phrase] to clients,” try “This press release intends to reassure clients.”
How and why this works: In almost all cases, effective editing can replace “the + noun + of” with a single-word noun (often “ing”) that means the same thing. Noun phrases (“to give reassurance”) can then become verbs (“intends” or “aims”) that convey a direct message. Over-relying on the verb “to be” tends to bury the action.
Try this: In your next piece of writing, see if you can spot how many times you use any form of the verb “to be”: e.g. is/are/were. You may be surprised!
I can help make your prose as clear and concise as possible—so your key message shines through.