Jane Friedman

A Key to Great Writing: Make Every Word Count

Today’s guest post is an excerpt from Keys to Great Writing by Stephen Wilbers, published by Writer’s Digest Books.

If I could teach only one key to great writing, it would be this: Make every word count.

Use words sparingly, as if you were planting a garden one seed at a time—not throwing out handfuls of seed willy-nilly, hoping a few kernels might land in the right spot and take hold. Get the full value out of every word you write. Recognize the power of a single, well-chosen word. Trust it to do its work. As a rule, the more economically you use language, the more powerfully you will deliver your message.

Wordy writers don’t trust a word to do its work, so they surround it with a few extra words for good measure. Writers who command language with energy and precision, on the other hand, understand the power of a single well-chosen word. It’s a question not only of habits of speech but also of orientation toward language. Wordy writers don’t fully trust language; concise writers do.

Nearly every writing handbook extols the virtues of concise writing. Not many, however, offer detailed advice on how to write concisely. What follows are a variety of editing techniques that will help you eliminate wordiness—and keep in mind that these techniques are meant to guide you in your editing, not in your drafting.

Edit for three types of redundancy.

Redundancy is a problem for many writers. As Joseph Williams points out in Style, there are three common types:

  1. redundant modifiers (in which the modifier implies the meaning of the word modified, as in past memories, personal beliefs, important essentials, and consensus of opinion)
  2. redundant categories (in which the category is implied by the word, as in large in size, pink in color, extreme in degree, and honest in character)
  3. redundant word pairs (in which the second word reiterates the meaning of the first, as in first and foremost, hopes and desires, full and complete, precious and few, and—if I may drop the italics—so on and so forth).

Both Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway cautioned writers against the careless use of modifiers. The challenge in eliminating redundant modifiers, however, is that familiarity breeds complacence. The more frequently we hear and read certain word combinations, the more acceptable they begin to sound and the more likely we are to use them unthinkingly—not because they are the best, most natural, and concise way to say what we have to say, but simply because they sound familiar.

Isn’t that a true fact? (A true fact?) The end result—a phrase as redundant as a new initiative—is wordy writing.

When editing, look closely at your modifiers. Make certain they don’t repeat the meanings of the words they modify. (Aren’t facts always true? Don’t results always occur at the end? Aren’t initiatives always new?) If they do, delete them. There is no point in repeating the same idea twice. (Repeating twice?)

When a word implies its category, don’t write both the word and the category. For instance, round in shape, heavy in weight, and pink in color are redundant because we know that round is a shape, heavy is a weight, and pink is a color.

Redundant pairing became more deeply ingrained in English usage when the disenfranchised Anglo-Saxons began borrowing words from the Norman nobles (just as earlier Anglo-Saxons borrowed from their Roman conquerors and, before that, the ancient Celts borrowed from their Anglo-Saxon conquerors). The Anglo-Saxons thought the borrowed word sounded more learned, so they got in the habit of pairing it with a familiar native word. And here we are, more than nine centuries later, still pairing our words. (Who said habits of speech were easy to break?)

The following pairings are common in speech, where rhythm plays an especially important role in how we perceive language, but they should be avoided in writing:

Delete hollow hedges and meaningless intensifiers.

When should you use hedges such as perhaps and sometimes to qualify your assertion? When should you use intensifiers such as very and absolutely to add emphasis to your point? These are questions that must be addressed whenever you make a statement. How you answer them depends on your desired tone and point of view.

At times you will want to qualify or limit a claim by using a qualifier. Rather than “Commitment leads to success,” for example, you might write, “Commitment often leads to success.” At other times you will want to add emphasis by using an intensifier: “Commitment always leads to success.”

Whatever your persuasive strategy, take a close look at your hedges and intensifiers. Be certain they are making a genuine contribution. Like other types of meaningless modifiers, hedges and intensifiers are often totally unnecessary. In the preceding sentence, for example, the qualifier often effectively limits my claim and should be retained, whereas the intensifier totally serves no purpose and should be deleted. To determine when to use a modifier and when to omit one, try the sentence without the modifier and see if anything important is lost.

Even when a statement needs to be qualified or intensified, be careful not to overdo it. As with all modifiers, you can have too much of a good thing. Compare, for example, “I was rather surprised by your somewhat unexpected decision to come home” with “I was surprised by your decision to come home.” Also, compare “Never in my entire life have I ever been so totally and completely offended by such grossly obnoxious behavior” with “Never have I been so offended by such obnoxious behavior” or, depending on your ear, “Never have I been so offended by such grossly obnoxious behavior.”

Delete needless repetition.

When used as an intentional device to create emphasis, repetition can be a powerful tool. It can create emphasis and intensity. Careless repetition, however, not only wastes the reader’s time, but also diminishes the writer’s effectiveness. Compare “An important factor that must be addressed is the age factor” with “An important factor that must be addressed is age.”

Sometimes you must repeat an idea or thought to convey your meaning and to increase coherence between sentences, but again, watch for needless repetition. Repeating the same words within a sentence or within successive sentences will steal the energy from your style and make your writing sound flat: “There is no substitute for regular practice. Every coach insists on regular practice.” You can avoid this sort of deadening repetition simply by replacing the repeated noun with a pronoun: “There is no substitute for regular practice. Every coach insists on it.”

Avoid protracted introductions.

Sometimes we place undue emphasis on relatively unimportant matters before we get to the heart of what we are saying. As many writers of fiction know, the first few sentences of a draft, or even the first few paragraphs or pages, often turn out to be expendable. The story, they discover when revising, doesn’t really begin until later. What at first seemed essential was merely a warm-up for the writer, not something engaging to the reader. By all means, do your warm-up exercises if they help you loosen up and get things under way, but delete them from your final copy.

Original: It is important to note that we will open an hour early on Monday.
Edited: We will open an hour early on Monday.

Original: The first point that needs to be made in all this is that the swiftest traveler is the one who goes afoot.
Edited: The swiftest traveler is the one who goes afoot.

Trim sentence endings for closing emphasis.

Both in poetry and in prose, the words that come last carry the most weight. In poetry, it’s no coincidence that the rhyme usually comes at the end of each line. In prose, the function of the period is to punctuate the words that precede it. To write with emphasis, take advantage of a sentence’s natural stress points by reserving them for your most important words. You may find it helpful to think of these locations as reserved parking. Only “VIP” words can park there.

Because of their special importance, sentence endings should be managed carefully. Unfortunately, in both writing and speaking, we have a tendency to keep going after we have made our point. We seem to have trouble knowing when to stop, knowing when enough is enough. As a result, we fail to conclude with our most important words and allow our sentences to sprawl on after they have done their work.

To guard against this tendency, look for opportunities to trim sentence endings. If you reduce “Does it stink like rotten meat would smell to you?” to “Does it stink like rotten meat?” you do more than eliminate unnecessary words. You also move the VIP phrase, rotten meat, to the end of the sentence, where it receives the prominence it deserves.

As another example, consider this sentence: “Restructuring is not an easy thing to do.” The meaning is clear, but the sentence structure is at and unemphatic. To take advantage of the sentence’s naturally stressed position, place the VIP words at the end and you have: “Restructuring is not easy.” Or, if you prefer, “Restructuring is difficult.”

When you write a sentence that lacks energy, ask yourself: Have I concluded the sentence with the word or words I want to emphasize?

Certain words needlessly state that something exists. For example, sentences ending in words like experiencing, existing, happening, and occurring can usually be trimmed. These words are expendable because they state the existence of something that already has been named in the sentence, and once something has been named, the reader can see that the thing exists.

A sentence that rambles on past the word or words deserving emphasis is a missed opportunity. Consider this sentence: “We are continually looking for new markets to get into.” Eliminating the needless phrase, to get into, moves the VIP phrase, new markets, into the naturally stressed position: “We are continually looking for new markets.”

Limit personal commentary.

We live in an I-centered society, and our self-absorption sometimes leads us to inject ourselves into sentences where we don’t belong. Guard against a tendency to provide a step-by-step account of your thought process. Limit personal commentary.

Original: In reading this essay, I was led to rethink my position on freedom of speech.
Edited: This essay caused me to rethink my position on freedom of speech.

Original: I have a problem with your coming in late every morning.
Edited: Your coming in late every morning is causing problems.

Original: I seriously doubt that a drop of five hundred points in the stock market means all investors should change their asset allocations.
Edited: A drop of five hundred points in the stock market doesn’t mean all investors should change their asset allocations.

Original: The first thing I want to say is that whenever I encounter situations like this, I am reminded of Poor Richard, who, as I recall, said, “A fat kitchen makes a lean will.”
Edited: As Poor Richard said, “A fat kitchen makes a lean will.”

If you found this post helpful, I highly recommend taking a look at Keys to Great Writing by Stephen Wilbers.