Lesson 4: This is about possibly writing some sort of wordy kind of sentences.

When I taught, many of my students couldn’t write papers that were long enough, while others suffered the opposite affliction–wordiness. What could be said in a few hundred words, they did in a thousand. (Thus the necessity for word limits on assignments–to get the slackers to live up, and to keep the yappers in check.)

What do I mean by wordiness?  The title of this post is a good example:

This is about possibly writing some sort of wordy kind of sentences.

Even though you get my point,  I could have accomplished it with fewer words. A better choice might have been:

How to eliminate wordy sentences.

or even more simply

Eliminate wordiness.

The last example uses the strong command form of the verb (more about that in a future lesson) to show what the main idea of the post is and  what you can learn from it. Also, such verb usage (along with using active verbs–again a future topic) will enliven your sentences and strengthen your purpose overall.

Have you ever heard that confidence is attractive? It works the same with the written word. Strong, confident sentences convey knowledge and hold the reader’s interest. Whereas wishy-washy wordy sentences tell the reader, “I don’t really know what I am talking about, so I will just use a lot of words to try to distract you.” When you use confident sentences, readers are (get this) more likely to believe you! Take the shock jocks and rabble-rousers of our time (I won’t name names)–they are able to rally people using strong, confident wording. Can you imagine if a presidential candidate said, “It would pretty great it the United States happened to find a time to come to the polls and maybe fill in the circle next to my name”? Compare that to “Vote for me.” 

Before you send that email, turn in that paper, or send that cover letter, see if you can give your writing a boost of confidence by following these guidelines:

1) Delete (without mercy) the following words:

some, possible/possibly, seems/it seems/it may seem, sort of, might, maybe, perhaps, someday, some people, people, someone, like, really, only, mostly/most, should, any, that, those, this, these, they, just, only, there is/there was, etc.

There are one or two instances where the use of one of these words is necessary, but more often these words are just filler and add little or nothing to a piece of writing. I can add more, but these are the biggest offenders. Just reading the list above makes me squirm with teenager-like anxiety. Ugh.

2) Assess your if, and, but, & because percentage. These words should only be used to connect ideas that are related to strengthen a point or argument. If  is used to talk about a hypothetical situation. Use these words sparingly. Avoid starting sentences with them, even though it is “technically” acceptable. They just sound weak. You don’t want to sound weak, do you? I said, DO YOU??? Ah, that’s better. Now give me fifty push-ups.

3) Check for excessively long verb constructions. For example: it might have happened to be able  can easily be replaced with it could.  Another example might be: She would have had to have come to the party  could be simplified to She would have come to the party, or even better, She came to the party.

Lengthy constructions confuse the subject, (i.e. the doer of the verb) and the topic of the sentence. As a reader, it is hard to track an argument through such a windy phrase as that. Keep it simple. Unless you are trying to confuse the reader, always use verbs in the simplest tense.

4) Choose the shortest path. Don’t use ten words when 5 will do. Don’t use 5 when 1 will do. While there are deliciously long sentences out there, the best way to win your reader is to be clear and concise. In the age of tweets and blogs and emails and text messaging, the importance of brevity cannot be lost on the modern writer and reader. As as newspaper headline writers can tell you, you only have a few seconds to convey an idea, so use your words economically.

5) Read it out loud. Or if you are at the office, read to a trusted coworker, or mouth the words (slowly) without making sound. Read each sentence as if it were the only sentence. Does it make sense? Do you know what you are talking about by the time you hit that period? Are you bored/confused? Does it have every word it needs? Does it have a few words that it doesn’t need? Sometimes you need to look at the trees in the forest, too. Sometimes you need to cut a few of those trees down.

Wordiness is not a sin, just a grave misdeed. When you eliminate extraneous words, your writing will be smoother and your argument more easily grasped. Furthermore, your ideas will shine through, and your writing will be  strong, confident, and smart. Give it a try. And, yes, there are probably about 100 words I could cut out of this post right now. Bonus points to anyone who rewrites this post without all the wordiness! 🙂


About Taylor

Teacher/Writer/Word Nerd View all posts by Taylor

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