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.

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To BE or not to BE: Reduce “to be” verbs to improve your writing

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Developing writers often rely on “to be” verbs when communicating action. To-be verbs are all forms of “be”: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, and been. In some student papers, English teachers might find “is” as the verb in the majority of sentences. Even professional writers struggle with the over-reliance on “is” as a verb. So what is so wrong with using “is” and other to-be verbs in writing? Oh dear! I just used is as a verb in that last sentence!

Take a look at the following example:

The girl is pretty.

What does “pretty” look like? Is creates a vague description. What does the girl’s pretty actually look like?

The girl has flowing auburn hair, crimson lips, and eyes I could drown in for days.

In the first example, the is verb creates a lazy sentence; it isn’t showing the reader anything specific. The second example shows the reader exactly what pretty is.

 

Sometimes eliminating to-be verbs is simply a matter of substituting another word in the place of “is.”

The chocolate chip cookies sure were good.

The chocolate chip cookies sure tasted good.

That dress is lovely.

That dress looks lovely.

The kitten is so soft.

The kitten feels so soft.

In the previous examples, you could also show what good, lovely, and soft taste, look, and feel like to create an even more vivid description.

 

Eliminating to-be verbs can also be accomplished by changing a noun into a verb, as in the following example:

The tutor was the winner of the “Teacher of the Year” award.

The tutor won the “Teacher of the Year” award.

 Diane Sawyer is an anchor on World New Tonight.

 Diane Sawyer anchors World News Tonight.

 By changing the noun into a verb, the previous examples are also now more concise.

 

 In some cases, you can rearrange the word order in sentences to eliminate “to-be” verbs:

The snakes were slithering in the pit.

 In the pit the snakes slithered.

 

 The assassin was in the dark alley waiting.

 In the dark alley waited the assassin.

 

As you can see, there are many ways to reduce the amount of to-be verbs from your writing.

Let me restate:

As you can see, many ways exist to reduce the amount of to-be verbs from your writing.

It would be impossible to eliminate all to-be verbs from our writing, and sometimes we just need to use them when nothing else will do. However, the over-reliance on “is” and other forms of the verb creates weak sentences and vague descriptions. Knowing when – and how often – to use them is the first step in improving your style. I’ve chosen to use a few, and edit out a few, in this article. Using to-be verbs isn’t incorrect, but a stylistic choice.  Choose carefully.

 

Editing Tip:

Open your essay in a WORD document.

Under “Editing,” select “Find”;

Type in “is” with spaces around it, so “space, is, space” (this eliminates finding “is” in every word;

All “is” should be highlighted in the entire document. Do you see any paragraphs with an overabundance of is as a verb? Revise by incorporating the previous suggestions.

Follow by running a “Find” on the other “to-be” forms: am, are, was, were, be, being, and been.

How did you do?

 

Style Watch: How to Construct Effective Sentences

Part I: Emphasis
(Part II next week: Conciseness)CaptureHave you ever read something, and then had to go back and read it again because you couldn’t understand what the writer was trying to communicate? Has an instructor ever written, “confusingly worded” or “reword” on your papers? Ever wonder exactly what makes up an effective sentence?

Effective sentences basically have two main characteristics, according to Andrea Lunsford, editor of The St. Martin’s Handbook:
#1: They emphasize ideas clearly.
#2: They do so as concisely as possible.

Simple, right?

If sentences are clear but the arrangement of word order prevents important information from taking center stage, it’s a problem of emphasis. In addition, many college students falsely believe they must use academic jargon and wordy, complicated sentence structure to sound, well, academic. Doing so only hinders the writing, the message getting lost in complicated construction and five-dollar words. This is an issue of conciseness.  This week we’ll discuss how to improve emphasis.

Positions of Emphasis

What do you remember when you read a sentence? Usually you’ll remember the end of the sentence. Consider this sentence:

Effective sentences basically have two main characteristics.

I wanted to emphasize the “two main characteristics,” so I placed that phrase at the end position.

Slightly less dominant but still a principal position, is the opening of the sentence.

Effective sentences basically have two main characteristics.

The secondary importance of this sentence but still important is “effective sentences.”

Let’s look at another example, with two different word orders:

The couple gave $100,000 to the zoo fundraising drive last night.

What is the most important information in the above sentence? If you said the amount of the donation, $100,000, you’re right. If the final position of the sentence emphasizes the words in that spot, when the donation was given – “last night,” is emphasized, and not the donation, which is significant and important. Let’s rearrange the word order to emphasize the amount, and not the time.

Last night, the couple gave the zoo fundraising drive $100,000.

In this revised example, the amount is now emphasized, creating a more dramatic structure.

Climactic Order

When you present ideas in climactic order, the most important ideas or items of a series are in the final position, placing force behind the words for dramatic effect.

Kristy’s behavior annoyed her classmates, angered her instructor, and enraged her boyfriend.

The protesters risked family rejection, brutal imprisonment, and almost certain death.

Saving the most dramatic item for the last position communicates a more powerful message.

Look at the following example that is not in climactic order, and consider how you might revise it for the most dramatic emphasis:

Video games damage our eyes, destroy our brains, and harm our ears.

Consider this:

Video games hurt our ears, damage our eyes, and destroy our brains.

Placing “destroy our brains” in the final position creates a greater emotional impact.

In your final editing stages, spend time critically thinking about sentence structure.  Your writing be more clear and fluid, and pack a more powerful emotional punch.  Now you try!

For Fun

Which of the following sentences in each group correctly highlight the most important items in the sentence?

1.

At the 1994 Winter Olympics, Nancy Kerrigan went on to receive the silver medal in figure skating despite the preceding media circus.

Despite the media circus preceding the 1994 Winter Olympics, Nancy Kerrigan went on to receive the silver medal in figure skating.

Nancy Kerrigan went on to receive the silver medal in figure skating at the 1994 Winter Olympics, despite the preceding media circus.

2.

The presence of the Indian in these movies always conjures up destructive stereotypes of bloodthirsty war parties, horse theft, and drunkenness.

The presence of the Indian in these movies always conjures up destructive stereotypes of drunkenness, horse theft, and bloodthirsty war parties.

Destructive stereotypes of bloodthirsty war parties, horse theft, and drunkenness always are conjured up by the presence of the Indian in these movies.

3.

Victorian women were warned that if they smoked, they would become sterile, grow a mustache, die young, or contract tuberculosis.

Victorian women were warned of the side effects of smoking: they would become sterile, grow a mustache, die young, or contract tuberculosis.

Victorian women were warned that smoking would cause them to grow a mustache, contract tuberculosis, become sterile, or die young.

4.

A crowd gathered, the stranded whale wriggled off the sandy beach, and a chorus of seagulls cried shrilly.

A crowd gathered, a chorus of seagulls cried shrilly, and the stranded whale wriggled off the sandy beach.

The stranded whale wriggled off the sandy beach after a crowd had gathered and while a chorus of seagulls cried shrilly.

5.

In 1998, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire both shattered the old home run record while their respective teams did poorly.

Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire both shattered the old home run record while their respective teams did poorly in 1998.

In 1998, while their respective teams did poorly, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire both shattered the old home run record.

(Examples above from Bedford St. Martin’s Exercise Central)

 

Next Week – Part II Style Watch: Conciseness