Tighten Up! Omit Needless Words & Phrases from your Writing

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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

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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

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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.

ONE IDEA = ONE PARAGRAPH

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.

SUPPORTING DETAILS

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.

ELEMENTS OF GOOD PARAGRAPH STRUCTURE

  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.

WHEN TO START A NEW PARAGRAPH

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.