Padded prose is a good way to bore, confuse or frustrate readers. So why do writers keep wasting keystrokes and tempting the patience of their audiences?
It’s not ignorance. Any book about effective writing encourages lean language. Writing instructors are blunter in their advice – “say what you mean, and no more.”
“In old baseball films, pitchers would execute an absurd, double-rocking windup before throwing the ball. The extra histrionics did nothing but bore the crowd and sap their own energy,” writes Ron Reinalda. “Similarly, today’s writers toss in superfluous phrases before making a point. Readers have no use for them, and they waste everyone’s time.”
In his blog for ragan.com, Reinalda provides a list of verbal “culprits.” It’s a long list, but it would have to be even longer to cover the entire wasteland of superfluity. Here’s a few of his most wince-inducing bugaboos:
Not surprisingly – “If it’s not surprising, why mention it?”
Never forget that – Readers will decide whether it’s forgettable or not.
The truth is – “Is revealed truth or just a truism?” Or just a lazy transition?
The fact of the matter is – Ugh. Just spit out the “fact.”
I want to start off by saying – “Too late. You started off by clearing your throat.
There are other page-wasters that add no meaning while exasperating the reader. My short list includes:
The fact that – The fact is you should rewrite your sentence and leave out this useless and clunky phrase.
In order to – The infinitive form of a verb can do this job without any help. (“To support” rather than “In order to support”)
Literally – This has become the new “like” and “you know” in speech and writing. When used correctly, this is helpful adverb. Most of the time, it is used as a crutch or exclamation mark.
Dead wood in sentences is just part of the problem. As Reinalda points out, “Many writers don’t get to the damn point.” At times, it seems writers don’t know what point they are trying to make, which can make superfluous phrasing all the more irritating.
If you rationalize flabby prose by pointing to your “conversational style” or “old habits,” you are off base. Flabby speech is as cringe-worthy as flabby prose. You can drop old habits, pretty much like you have with rotary phones and DVDs.
Your writing should matter, so write like it matters. Spend time thinking about what you want to say, master your topic so you know what’s important and then commit your thoughts to words – words that tell your story, explain your point of view or share valuable information and no more.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.