Tighten Up! Omit Needless Words & Phrases from your Writing



Many writers, beginning and experienced, often inflate their sentences with unnecessary words, but strong writing is not complicated or wordy writing. Good writing is tight, concise, and to the point. Inflating your writing with superfluous words will lead to confusion in not only your sentences, but can also lead to a confusing message in your essay. Read on to learn how to tighten your writing and improve your sentences.

Eliminate Wordy Phrases

One of the easiest fixes to tighten your writing is to eliminate wordy phrases. Read over your essay to see if a wordy phrase can be reduced to a word or two without changing the meaning:

At the present time  Today our business has no deficit.

The end result is tragic if a patient is not treated swiftly.

The final outcome will be difficult to determine.

Because of the fact that NASA has cut funding, the space missions are in jeopardy.


Eliminate Empty or Meaningless Words

Read each sentence carefully to locate words that offer no essential information to a sentence. Some of the most common empty words in student essays are very, really, and definitely.

They were really trying hard to get the bill passed.

The paper was very interesting. 

The research definitely shows that meditation reduces stress.

If you find you use very or really a little too frequently, it’s often a sign that the sentence needs to be rewritten with stronger language. Note the changes in the revised sentence below:

They were struggling to get the bill passed.

The paper was fascinating.

The research confirms that meditation reduces stress.


Omit “It is” Constructions

One of the most common sentence constructions found in student writing is beginning a sentence with “It is” or “There are,” both of which create a subject-less, and often confusing, sentence. Look at the sentences below and consider what the “it is” might be referring to:

It is possible that the cause of her headaches is stress.

Revised: The cause of her headaches is stress.

It is worth pointing out that both governors were incorrect.

Revised: Note that both governors were incorrect.

It is clear that research supports his findings.

Revised: Clearly the research supports his findings.

It is often the case that initial experiments fail to prove anything.

Revised: Often initial experiments fail to prove anything.


Tighten sentences beginning with “There are” to clarify meaning and improve style by locating the real subject of the sentence. Below, the real subject of the sentences is underlined:

There are numerous reports of widespread corruption.

Revised: Numerous reports suggest widespread corruption.

There are only two questions left to answer.

Two questions are left to answer.

There are numerous studies that show the opposite is true.

Numerous studies show the opposite is true.


Before you turn in your final draft, take some time to work on eliminating any redundant, excessive, or unnecessary words or language from your sentences. Your ideas will communicate more clearly, writing will flow more smoothly, which means your ideas will be taken more seriously.

The Mod Squad: How to Banish Misplaced Modifiers


A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that offers a description or identifying details of another word in a sentence. A modifier should always be placed by the word it modifies. Let’s look at some examples below to see what happens when modifiers are misplaced.

The waitress received a large tip with a smile.

The previous sentence is an example of a misplaced modifier. A misplaced modifier often causes confusion for the reader. The modifying phrase in this example, “with a smile” modifies “The waitress,” not “a large tip,” so the modifying phrase should be placed next to the word or phrase it modifies to clarify the meaning:

With a smile, the waitress received a large tip.

Sometimes, a misplaced modifier is not only confusing, but can create a ridiculous sentence, as in the examples below:

The children ate the candy they had purchased slowly.

The word “slowly” is modifying “purchased” in the sentence. So it sounds like the children had purchased the candy slowly! What the writer really means is the children were eating the candy slowly.

The children slowly ate the candy they had purchased.


The sentence below also sounds a bit confusing, and quite awkward:

The school children saw a fence behind the school made of barbed wire.

Because the modifying phrase, “made of barbed wire” is directly after “the school,” it sounds like the school was made of barbed wire!

The school children saw a fence made of barbed wire behind the school.


In some cases, a modifier is sandwiched next to two words that could possibly be modified, creating an ambiguous meaning.

Jason told Alex immediately to call his mother.

Did Jason tell Alex immediately? OR was Alex to call immediately? We don’t know, so the sentence needs revising to clarify:

Jason told Alex to call his mother immediately.

Now it’s clear that Alex is to call immediately.

If the writer meant that Jason told Alex immediately, the sentence would look like this:

Jason immediately told Alex to call his mother.


Misplaced modifiers become more complicated when modifying phrases or clauses are placed between main sentence elements, as in the example below:

The cost of attending college, because of inflation and reduced federal support, has risen sharply in recent years.

This sentence is a bit awkward, as the modifying phrase is longer and more complicated. The sentence can be clarified by moving the modifying phrase to the end:

The cost of attending college has risen sharply in recent years because of inflation and reduced federal support.

The example below is also a bit awkward with the modifying phrase in between the subject and predicate:

Anthony could have, if he had not been arrested, played in the championship game.

In this example, moving the modifying phrase to the beginning helps to clarify the sentence:

If he had not been arrested, Anthony could have played in the championship game.

As you can see, misplaced modifiers can not only cause confusion for the reader, but can also sound quite ridiculous! Carefully read your sentences to make sure your sentences are clear and free of misplaced modifiers.

Now you try!

Can you identify the problems below? Reword the following sentences to correct misplaced modifiers.

  • Emma Sue was delighted when Mr. Nguyen returned her perfect calculus test with an ear-to-ear grin. 
  • Attached to the email, Charlotte sent her boyfriend Byron another photographic self-portrait with eerie red eyes. 
  • While Marina’s tail flopped against the wood, which was long, scaly, and metallic blue, she asked poor Tommy the reason for his pain. 


(exercises from http://www.chompchomp.com/modifiers01/modifiers01.01.htm)

The Basics of Paragraph Structure


A paragraph is simply a group of related sentences comprised of a single topic. Creating a good paragraph structure helps your reader easily follow the piece of writing. If your paper is full of wonderful ideas, but the ideas are not presented in a well-organized, coherent, logical order, then your reader will become frustrated and most likely stop reading.


The most important rule to follow when creating paragraphs is to remember that one paragraph contains one idea. Following that one simple rule will prevent most, if not all, problems with paragraph structure. Novice writers often try to include as much information as possible in one paragraph, which creates a jumbled mess of ideas that are hard, if not impossible, to follow. If you begin a new topic, begin a new paragraph.


Since your paragraphs will have one main idea or point, the paragraph will include supporting details, but those supporting points will be directly related to the paragraph’s main idea. It’s okay to have several supporting points in one paragraph, as long as they are directly related to the main idea or point of the paragraph.


  1. Your paragraphs should be unified. When paragraphs are unified, they have a clear focus. The paragraph begins with one main idea, the idea carries throughout the paragraph, and the conclusion of the paragraph maintains focus on that one controlling idea, and avoids wandering off-track or introducing new or unrelated information.
  2. Your paragraphs should be cohesive. A cohesive paragraph is one that makes the information easily understandable. The words and ideas flow logically with smooth transitions from sentence to sentence. The one main idea you began the paragraph with continues from sentence to sentence. Transitional words guide the reader through the paragraph for a fluid reading. A reader should be able to quickly read the paragraph and be able to easily summarize what it is about.
  3. Your paragraph should be fully developed. The one main idea or topic in the paragraph should be adequately discussed, leaving nothing in question. Fully developed, however, doesn’t mean wordy or redundant. In contrast, a paragraph that is too short will leave questions in the reader’s minds about the main idea. In most college-level writing, paragraphs of 2 or 3 sentences, especially in research papers, or are often not fully developed.


If you want to discuss a new idea or make a new point, start a new paragraph. In longer research papers, you might need to start a new paragraph if the main point in the paragraph becomes extended with supporting, related explanation or research.

You can also start a new paragraph if you want to contrast ideas or offer opposing viewpoints to your main point. Even though the ideas are related, creating separate paragraphs of contrast help the reader to follow your line of reasoning and prevents paragraphs from becoming too long and confusing.

An introduction to an essay will always be in its own paragraph; similarly, always begin a new paragraph for your conclusion. Both the intro and conclusion may have multiple paragraphs, depending on the essay’s length and the writer’s purpose, but intro information and concluding information should never be integrated in body paragraphs.

To test your paragraphs, have a peer read each carefully and ask him or her to identify the controlling idea, and evaluate the unity, cohesiveness, and development of the paragraph. If the paragraph cannot be read fluidly and be easily understood, revise.

Good paragraph structure is an essential element to good writing and a strong composition. Make sure each sentence in a paragraph only discusses one main idea or point, creating a unified, cohesive, fully-developed paragraph. Well-constructed paragraphs lead to well-constructed papers.



End With a Flourish: How to compose a powerful final sentence

(A version of this post originally appeared Feb. 2014)

Many writers spend a lot of time in the early stages of the composition process perfecting their introductory paragraph, taking care to grab the reader’s attention with a great hook and laying out a convincing argument. By the time we get to the conclusion, we often get impatient and don’t spend the time drafting a compelling conclusion. Most often, a conclusion that falls flat isn’t about the content, but it’s more often a problem of last-line syntax.

What do I mean by syntax?

Syntax refers to the arrangement of words in a sentence, or the grammatical structure of a sentence. A particular sentence might have a variety of ways one could order the words and still derive the same meaning. Beginning writers (and even some experienced) sometimes give little thought to word order, and in body of paragraphs, it might not make a great deal of difference for a reader. However, a concluding line needs punch.  The conclusion should not only leave a strong message for the audience, but also communicate that message in a way to create the most emotional impact right down to the final word.

Look at the similar sentences in the examples below:

  • There is no more important issue than this.
  • There is no more important or more urgent issue.

At first glance, both seem okay. Both say about the same thing. But the second is better. Why? Because the final words, “urgent issue” leaves the reader with a more vivid image than the first example which ends with a vague phrase. In Example 1, the concluding word, “this,” a pronoun, leaves no strong image for the reader. The phrase, “There is no more important issue. . .” is placed in the slightly weaker position at the beginning of the sentence, so it offers less impact. We remember best what we read last.

The second example also utilizes parallel structure, “more important or more urgent . . .,” which works to reinforce the writer’s message by the use of repetition.

In the classic style book, The Elements of Style, Strunk and White say that “The proper place in the sentence for the word or group of words that the writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end.” Let’s take a look at two examples:
1)         Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways.

2)         Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.

 The second example has a greater emotional impact by concluding with the words, “advanced in fortitude.” These are considered emphatic words, or words that should require prominence in the sentence. The first example’s final phrase, “though it has advanced in many other ways,” is a bit vague, the words imprecise, which weaken the message.

Also notice the cadence of each example. Cadence refers to the musicality of language, the rhythm imparted on language which is influenced by how words are arranged in a sentence. In the first example above, “Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways,” has a falling rhythm. The ending of the sentence has no emphatic punch. It just kind of trails off. . .

In the second example, the rhythm has built to a crescendo as we approach the end of the sentence; this is done by placing a short dependent clause in the beginning position (“Since that time”), followed by a dependent clause (“humanity has advanced in many ways”), concluding with a flurry of repetitive, hard consonants, or alliteration, which creates a strong punchy conclusion. The rhythm of this syntax slows the reader down and places emphasis on the final words. Read the sentence again, but this time, read it aloud so you can hear:

Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.

Do you hear the power at the end of the sentence? How does it sound different than the first example?

Readers read with their eyes, but we still hear what we read. That’s why all writers should read their work aloud. Even though we read in our head, we don’t get the full effect until we hear the words aloud.

Tips and Tricks

 When attempting to create a powerful concluding line, some words are better left for positions in their respective sentence other than the end. Pronouns and prepositions often weaken a sentence when placed in the final position. One of the most common pronouns that you should avoid placing in the final or power position of a concluding line is “it” – probably the most overused pronoun in student papers.

Think about what idea or image you want to leave the reader with and structure the final sentence accordingly. It’s often simply a matter of putting more thought into your sentence structure. Play around with word order, and read our earlier post on absolute phrases, which explains the different ways phrases can be arranged in a sentence.

Below are some concluding lines from great literature. Consider why the authors made the choices they did, and how changing the word order might hurt – or enhance – the final lines.

All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.” –Voltaire, Candide

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” –Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

It’s old light, and there’s not much of it. But it’s enough to see by. –Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye

It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.   –Toni Morrison, Sula

He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.
–Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.
–Willa Cather, My Ántonia


Writing the Profile Essay


Profile writing is common in Literary Journalism, but even freshman English Composition classes often assign a profile essay. What distinguishes a profile from other types of written assignments?

A profile usually asks you to closely observe a person. A good profile subject is someone who may represent a culture, place, or situation that is unique or intriguing. For instance, profiling an unknown tri-athlete can show an audience what it might be like to overcome challenges or demonstrate the dedication it takes to compete. Profiling a local pastry chef may show a unique occupation that has been gaining popularity from TV shows like Cupcake Wars.

A profile is similar to a narrative essay in that it utilizes a narrative method of organization, incorporating narrative storytelling devices such as scenes, sensory detail, and dialogue, to build the essay. All of these details work together to show the character of the profile subject. Specific details are shown in scenes; descriptions are shown through the use of sensory detail, such as sight, smell, touch, taste and sound, as well as literary techniques like metaphor and simile, and other figurative language.

Most profile essays will require you to interview your subject. This is a narrative storytelling technique which allows the subject to speak for themselves, again showing the character and personality of the subject. As the interviewer, you will be required to have a good ear to relay the spoken word. You’ll have to transcribe the interview into dialogue form, which is fun and challenging at the same time. Choosing what to leave in and what to edit out will determine how your profile subject is characterized.

Finding a great subject is half the battle, as a profile is only as good as the subject. Think outside the box when considering who you might want to profile. Good subjects come in unlikely places. The grocery store clerk. The Starbucks barista. The school security guard. All of these subjects work in places with lots of setting specifics and sensory detail.


Profile as Part of a Larger Project

It’s not unusual to incorporate a profile piece into an argument essay as a way to hook the audience and to dramatize an issue. Take a look below at the “Profile” introduction to an argument essay. The writer is trying to persuade the audience to require breathalyzers in the cars of convicted drunk drivers:

Charley Wolf left the bar at 1:00am after consuming seven beers and ten shots in a three hour period. Wolf slid behind the wheel of his Ford pickup, turned the ignition, and put the truck in “Drive.” In the next twenty minutes, Wolf was spotted by other motorists weaving on the expressway, running over a curb, and knocking down a road barrier. Within ten minutes, Wolf hit another car head-on, killing the driver and critically injuring the passenger. As the police booked Wolf, they learned he had four previous drunk driving offenses.

Consider this alternate scenario: Wolf consumed seven beers and ten shots in three hours. He left the bar to drive home. But when he got behind the wheel, the ignition wouldn’t unlock until he took a breathalyzer, which he failed. Wolf took a cab home, avoiding what could have been a tragedy.

In this example, the writer profiles a subject to show a tragic scene, hooking the audience with the emotional appeal of a true story, adding support to his argument requiring breathalyzers for previously convicted drunk drivers.

Final thoughts

When writing a profile essay, take some time to consider who might make a good subject, and what you want to “show” in the profile. Details you’ll glean from the interview and observation will help characterize the subject. Think about what you want your audience to take away from the profile. Maybe the grocery store clerk has been at the same store for thirty years and is a part of the local culture of the neighborhood. The Starbucks barista may have something interesting to say on this special form of addiction (caffeine!). Take your time with careful observation, and prepare interview questions ahead of time. A good subject and careful prep will go a long way toward a great profile.

ESL Spotlight: Verb Combinations


English sentences sometimes require a combination of a helping verb with a main verb. A helping verb, also known as an auxiliary verb, helps out the main verb, giving more detail in how time is portrayed. Helping verbs always appear before the main verb in a sentence.

According to The Brief English Handbook, English has 23 helping verbs; 9 work only as helping verbs, and the remainder are forms of do, have, and be.

  • do, does, did
  • have, has, had,
  • be, is, was, were, are, am, been, being

In many cases, a verb will not be complete without a helping verb.

  • The doctor will arrive soon.
  • The contract was submitted late.
  • Steve has been studying all night.

In the examples above, the sentences required a helping verb to complete the verb. Without the helping verb, they would not make sense.


Modals are a type of helping verb that express probability, necessity, or ability. Below is a list of modal verbs:

  • Can, could, may, might, will, would, must, shall, should, ought to

  • He does not know the answer.
  • I should bring a dessert.
  • Dave could come early if needed.

In the examples below, have, has, and had are used with past participles (driven, contributed, slept are all past tense) to form the perfect tense:

  • I have driven all night to get here.
    Vicky has contributed more than anyone.
    Kate had slept later than usual.

In the following examples, is, was, were, are, and am are used with present participles to form the progressive tense:

  • John was working on the furnace.
    Jason is swimming in the lake.
    The students are studying for the finals.

Passive Voice

The passive voice is created by combining a helping verb, is, was, were, are, am, with a past participle. This means that the recipient of the verb or action becomes the subject of a sentence. This is not grammatically incorrect, but a stylistic choice, though your instructor may ask that you avoid passive construction when you can.

  • The boy was thrown from the horse.
    The trees were scorched by the wildfires.
    The kids were bitten by the puppies.

Verb combinations are often confusing for English language learners. English also has irregular verbs that complicate our understanding, but with practice, you will begin to master verb constructions. Visit the links below for more information and exercises.

  1. A number of recent crashes ____ (raise) questions about the risks of letting new pilots fly at night.
    A. had raised                        B. have raised
  2. The board ____ (state) that approximately eighty people die each year in crashes involving privately flown planes.
    A. has stated                         B. had stated
  3. Some experts ____ (argue) that the number of these types of crashes have decreased over the last twenty years.
    A. have argued                     B. had argued


[Examples 1-3 from Bedford St. Martin’s Exercise Central.]









Creating an Annotated Bibliography


To understand how to create an annotated bibliography, let’s start with defining a working bibliography. As you begin to locate and compile source material for your project, you’ll want to record the information for the sources you think you might use. It’s important to remember that in the early stages of constructing a research paper, you are discovering source material that may or may not go in the finished project, but to be efficient and not lose valuable materials (and time!) we compile a working bibliography to keep track of our research. It’s referred to as a “working” bibliography, as we are still working on the project, so all of the sources we find may or may not go in the final project.

An annotated bibliography is taking the working bibliography one step further. By annotating, or taking notes, on the source material you find, you will have an overview of the source, such as the type of source it is, a brief summary of the source, and how you might use it in your paper. Often, annotated bibliographies are a separate assignment of a research project, as your instructor wants you to demonstrate your understanding of the source and consider exactly how you intend to use it in your paper. Seasoned researchers often keep an annotated bibliography of their project, recording their thoughts on each source as they build their paper.

If your instructor has assigned an annotated bibliography, he or she most likely wants you to briefly summarize the source material, describe the purpose it will serve in your paper, for instance, if it will support or oppose your arguments, and may even ask you to explain why you chose the source. It’s not enough simply to collect random sources; as you compile your source list, it’s important to be able to synthesize the material and critically consider how you will incorporate it into your project. An annotated bibliography shows your instructor you have evaluated your source material carefully.

Below are examples of both MLA and APA annotated bibliography entries.

Example of Annotated Bibliography Entry


Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1995. Print.

Lamott’s book offers honest advice on the nature of a writing life, complete with its insecurities   and failures. Taking a humorous approach to the realities of being a writer, the chapters in Lamott’s book are wry and anecdotal and offer advice on everything from plot development to jealousy, from perfectionism to struggling with one’s own internal critic. In the process, Lamott includes writing exercises designed to be both productive and fun.

Lamott offers sane advice for those struggling with the anxieties of writing, but her main project seems to be offering the reader a reality check regarding writing, publishing, and struggling with one’s own imperfect humanity in the process. Rather than a practical handbook to producing and/or publishing, this text is indispensable because of its honest perspective, its down-to-earth humor, and its encouraging approach.

Chapters in this text could easily be included in the curriculum for a writing class. Several of the chapters in Part 1 address the writing process and would serve to generate discussion on students’ own drafting and revising processes. Some of the writing exercises would also be appropriate for generating classroom writing exercises. Students should find Lamott’s style both engaging and enjoyable.

(Example from Purdue Owl Online).

This example shows a typical annotated bibliography assignment, with one brief paragraph of summary, one paragraph of evaluation, and a final paragraph explain how the writer will utilize it.

The example below shows a shorter, one paragraph entry:

Example 2

Waite, Linda J., Frances Kobrin Goldscheider, and Christina Witsberger. “Nonfamily Living and the Erosion of Traditional Family Orientations Among Young Adults.” American Sociological Review 51.4 (1986): 541-554. Print.

The authors, researchers at the Rand Corporation and Brown University, use data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Young Women and Young Men to test their hypothesis that nonfamily living by young adults alters their attitudes, values, plans, and expectations, moving them away from their belief in traditional sex roles. They find their hypothesis strongly supported in young females, while the effects were fewer in studies of young males. Increasing the time away from parents before marrying increased individualism, self-sufficiency, and changes in attitudes about families. In contrast, an earlier study by Williams cited below shows no significant gender differences in sex role attitudes as a result of nonfamily living.

(Example from Cornell U Library)


Example 1

Ehrenreich, B. (2001). Nickel and dimed: On (not) getting by in America. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

In this book of nonfiction based on the journalist’s experiential research, Ehrenreich attempts to ascertain whether it is currently possible for an individual to live on a minimum-wage in America. Taking jobs as a waitress, a maid in a cleaning service, and a Walmart sales employee, the author summarizes and reflects on her work, her relationships with fellow workers, and her financial struggles in each situation.

An experienced journalist, Ehrenreich is aware of the limitations of her experiment and the ethical implications of her experiential research tactics and reflects on these issues in the text. The author is forthcoming about her methods and supplements her experiences with scholarly research on her places of employment, the economy, and the rising cost of living in America. Ehrenreich’s project is timely, descriptive, and well-researched.

(Example from Purdue Owl Online).

In the example above, the entry summarizes the book in the first paragraph, and analyzes and evaluates in the second paragraph.

The entry should be double spaced. Some style books show to break paragraphs, and others show to keep the entire entry in one paragraph with no breaks. Always follow your instructor guidelines.

Example 2

Waite, L. J., Goldschneider, F. K., & Witsberger, C. (1986). Nonfamily living and the erosion of traditional family orientations among young adults. American Sociological Review, 51 (4), 541-554.

The authors, researchers at the Rand Corporation and Brown University, use data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Young Women and Young Men to test their hypothesis that nonfamily living by young adults alters their attitudes, values, plans, and expectations, moving them away from their belief in traditional sex roles. They find their hypothesis strongly supported in young females, while the effects were fewer in studies of young males. Increasing the time away from parents before marrying increased individualism, self-sufficiency, and changes in attitudes about families. In contrast, an earlier study by Williams cited below shows no significant gender differences in sex role attitudes as a result of nonfamily living.

(Example from Cornell U Library)

NOTE: Standard MLA practice requires double spacing within citations. Both MLA and APA require hanging indent on the first line of each entry, which our blog format does not show.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, annotated bibliographies can be descriptive and critical; they can interpret the author’s point of view, and evaluate the author’s authority and even their style. If you have been assigned an annotated bibliography, take care to follow your instructor guidelines and include the required elements. For your own purposes, briefly summarize the source and note how you will utilize it in your paper. Even though it may seem like a time-consuming step, annotating your sources as you go will save you time in the end, as you’ll not only know exactly where to integrate the source, but you will also have your works cited or reference list complete.

** Note that the first line of all entries should be flush with the left margin, which the screen does not show.


Examples from: http://guides.library.cornell.edu/annotatedbibliography

Olin Library Reference
Research & Learning Services
Cornell University Library
Ithaca, NY, USA

Purdue Owl Online Writing Lab https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/614/01/