It took me my whole life to learn what not to play.”
“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.”
William Strunk, Elements of Style
They say that brevity is the soul of wit and it’s often lauded as a desired literary aspiration. Not everyone agrees with this, of course: Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, and Anthony Trollope spring to mind. But while they may have waxed eloquent on the page, most of the time they followed the maxim, “Make every world tell.”
When you’re in self-editing mode, Deciding how to say what you want to say more concisely yet colorfully is the name of the game. Here are a few common prose padders you’ll want to avoid:
“Creeping nouns” — William Zinnser uses this phrase to describe extra nouns that glom unto perfectly clear nouns and add nothing new in terms of meaning. Examples: “crisis situation,” “weather conditions,” and “sales event.” In each case, a simple noun like “crisis” or “weather” has been expanded into a phrase that weakens its effect.
Poor verb tenses — Strong writers choose the most direct verb tenses and use the simple present or past whenever they can, because they know that convoluted constructions slow the reader down. Examples: “They wandered around” vs. “they were wandering around” or “He said it was difficult” vs. “He said it has been difficult.”
Unnecessary adjectives — It’s easy to get lazy and use an adjective + noun construction, when a carefully vetted noun is a better choice. Examples: “a slow, casual walk” vs. “saunter” or “bottomless pit” vs. “abyss.” Make your nouns sing for their supper!
Half the fun of writing is in the editing. Making what you’ve written tighter, livelier, clearer, simpler, more colorful: This is what revision is all about. And when you come up with a sprightlier verb or noun and find yourself with a much-improved sentence — now that’s a fantastic feeling. Write on!
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