Give Your Prose a Hug to Squeeze Out Wasted Words

 Be a lover of words to become a more effective communicator. Don’t be afraid of hugging your prose to squeeze out wasted words that gum up what you are trying to say.

Be a lover of words to become a more effective communicator. Don’t be afraid of hugging your prose to squeeze out wasted words that gum up what you are trying to say.

Competition for eyeballs and shrinking attention spans make it imperative to write to the point.

Extraneous words, convoluted sentences and meandering thoughts confuse your audience and cause them to click somewhere else. “Extraneous words gum up our prose,” writes Philip Corbett in The New York Times “After Deadline” blog. “Many padded expressions are weak, flabby and ineffective.“

Bright, straightforward writing is the secret to keeping your audience’s attention. Bright writing means telling your story by selecting only the best details and describing them in vivid word pictures. Straightforward writing involves using a garden hoe to remove words, phrases and thoughts you don’t need to tell your story.

You can search online for extensive lists of wasted words. Candidates for the compost bin include:

  • Moreover
  • Currently
  • In order to
  • Presently
  • Basically
  • Essentially
  • Actually
  • Obviously
  • Literally

Simplifying sentences is another vital verbal gardening chore.  Corbett offered a simple example: Instead of “The answer is a simple one,” (six words) why not just “The answer is simple” (four words).

Corbett offered a more typical example (this one from The New York Times) of how to get rid of wasted words:

Replace: “His method was a laborious one that involved crushing the peppers with a potato masher and mixing them with rock salt from the island’s own salt mines, then aging the mash twice, adding vinegar in between.”  With: “His laborious method involved using a potato masher to crush peppers, then mixing them with indigenous rock salt and aging them twice while adding vinegar.” Editing reduced a 36-word sentence to a streamlined 25 words without sacrificing meaning or detail.

If you could trim an average of 10 words per sentence, you could shorten and add punch to marketing content, information posts and explanations of complex subjects. The space you save from fewer words would allow you to enlarge an image, highlight a key quote or insert an infographic.

Being kind to your readers, viewers and listeners requires mastery of your subject matter and a commitment to economical expression. Say what you need to say. Say it as straightforwardly as you can. Choose the best words to convey your meaning. Delete unnecessary and lazy words. Polish your sentences until they sparkle.

Unless you are a playwright or novelist writing dialogue, your written words don’t need to echo how you speak. Ironically, if you become a master editor of your own prose, it will leak over to how you speak.

Clear expression is never out of style, and these days it certainly is in high demand. Be a lover of language, treat words with respect and give your sentences frequent hugs.

[CFM can turn you into a word lover with training and assistance to tell your story through economical and bright writing.]

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.