Charles Dickens used 26 words to introduce his main character in the first sentence of Great Expectations: “My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.”
Herman Melville did the job in three: “Call me Ishmael.”
Both approaches have their merits, though I think we can all agree that Charles could have gotten his point across more succinctly.
Florid prose is dandy if you’re writing a masterpiece of 19th-century literature, but for most of us, most of the time, brevity is best. Usually we just want to communicate an idea simply, in a way that’s easy to understand. However, such a task is hard to do if a sentence is weighed down by a lot of unnecessary words.
Here’s a paragraph that demonstrates many of the mistakes I see in (and cut out of) people’s writing:
I’m writing this letter to you to follow up on this issue. With regard to the leaky toilet, it still needs to be fixed. I was wondering if you have been able to figure out and determine what is causing the problem. I have also noticed that, in addition to the leak, the water in the back of the toilet tank is lower when compared to what it was before. (By the way, the manufacturer of this particular toilet is American Standard, a brand that we are able to find in bathrooms nationwide.) I have been reading the article “Toilet Leakage and You” by the author Chet U-bend. In the article it is mentioned that leaking toilets are a leading cause of flooded bathrooms. The author goes on further, calling leaking toilets a “blight on floor tiles.” After reading the article, I know that when it comes to leaky toilets, fixing them is important. (154 words)
This is perfectly understandable prose, but the same information could be conveyed much more simply. If this were submitted to me via editorr, the edited version would look something like this:
This corrected version reads:
The toilet still needs to be fixed. Have you figured out what is causing the leak? I have also noticed that the water in the tank is lower than it was before. (By the way, this toilet is manufactured by American Standard, a brand used nationwide.) In his article “Toilet Leakage and You,” Chet U-bend writes that leaking toilets are a leading cause of flooded bathrooms and a “blight on floor tiles.” Fixing leaky toilets is important! (77 words)
Note that I removed exactly half of the words in the original piece without losing any of the meaning!
There isn’t room to argue for every change, though I’d be happy to discuss my reasoning for the various cuts in the comment section. However, let’s just take a quick look at one sentence to get a taste of the process:
“I was wondering if you have been able to figure out and determine what is causing the problem.” If you’re asking a question, it’s pretty clear that you’re wondering about the answer. You can often omit the “I was wondering” intro and just ask your question.
A lot of people also add unnecessary words to their writing by tacking on synonyms. “Figure out” and “determine” mean pretty much the same thing in this context. Decide which of these terms works best and ditch the synonym.
The long and short of it is, don’t use a handful of words to express yourself when one will suffice. Unless you’re Charles Dickens, brevity is (usually) best!
By: Debra H., On Demand Editor for editorr