Words that Are Killing Your Writing
I blame middle-school language arts teachers.* They don’t nip it in the bud.
I’m talking about overblown language. $10 words. Unnecessary prepositional phrases.
At some point in our writing development, we get the notion that bigger words and longer sentences make us sound smarter. Maybe it’s the minimum word requirement for essays that teachers impose. Any half-smart kid knows that throwing in a few prepositional phrases can help you get from 950 words to 1,000 in a New York minute. And, honestly, the night before a paper is due — when most students are writing — expediency is the name of the game.
But longer ISN’T better.
The optimum number of words for anything you write is the MINIMUM needed to fully convey the message.
And I’d argue that the same applies to individual words. There’s no need to introduce a $10 word if a $5 word means exactly the same thing.
I approach writing as though it were a math exercise for reducing fractions: reduce, reduce, reduce.
10/5 = 2
6/12 = 1/2
9/27 = 1/3
Reduce to the most compact yet effective words.
It doesn’t matter what the context is. Business, personal, legal, political, academic, technical…all writing genres benefit from simplifying to essential elements to enhance understanding.
Hunt down these words
This brings to mind some words and phrases that should be extricated from the English language. (I could have said “eliminated,” but “extricated” has a slightly different meaning and the same number of letters.) Plucking these from your vocabulary will make your writing more lively and less bogged down.
- “Utilize” — Oh, what a loathsome word. It’s a souped-up, unnecessary, ugly expansion of the word “use.” Here’s an idea: just use “use.” It has fewer syllables and is not obnoxious. No one is impressed by the “z” or the two extra syllables. (Note: there is a technical difference between “use” and “utilize,” in that “utilize” refers to using something in a novel way, but that differentiation is no longer observed in today’s lexicon.)
- Most words ending in “-(a)tion.” — The suffix “(a)tion” has one job: to turn a verb into a noun. Your writing is much stronger if you use the verb form (well, gerund to be more accurate, but gerunds and participles tend to scare people off, so let’s just say verb). For example, “The reduction of the workforce will free up cash for the department” is very stilted and protracted. The sentence is much stronger as “Reducing the workforce will free up cash for the department.” There are exceptions to this rule for “(a)tion” words that don’t translate back to verb form well, such as “information.”
- “Unto” — Except for a few places where that particular preposition is cemented into a popular phrase, this word is considered archaic. “Unto” means exactly the same thing as “to,” and to the modern reader, “to” is more fluid, is not pretentious, and doesn’t make the reader wonder if he’s wandered into a Shakespearean sonnet.
- “Which” when “that” will do — Again, not living in the Elizabethan era, we can excise most “which” uses from our writing. One writing instructor calls this “which hunting.” Anytime you feel the need to use “which,” try “that” instead. If it works, use it. “Which” is typically only needed if a comma precedes the phrase to make it parenthetical, as in “The elm tree, which had been planted by Elroy’s grandfather, was overgrown.” Otherwise, use “that.”
- Prepositional phrases that are strung together — Try to use only one prepositional phrase at a time. When they are strung together, they prolong your sentence and slow the action. Think of it as running in place like a cartoon character (with sound effects, if it helps). Keep the sentence moving. For example, rather than “A leaf from a tree in the neighboring yard has drifted into my mint julep,” try this: “A leaf from our neighbor’s tree has drifted into my mint julep.” Much leaner and simpler. Adding possessive case is a trick I use often to tighten up sentences and eliminate prepositional phrases.
Develop an ear for unnecessary words and phrases
It takes practice, but if you consistently re-read your writing and look for these and similar “weeds,” you’ll begin to recognize unnecessary words and phrases.
I won’t be happy until and unless the word “utilize” makes you cringe and gnash your teeth. If it does, my work here is done, and I thank you.
Another trick I use is to read everything I write aloud. It’s easier to spot the overblown words when you have to wrap your tongue around them. If you have to stop to pronounce a word, seriously consider replacing it.
And, when reading aloud, it’s obvious a sentence is overly written when you have to stop to take a breath. When you recognize these problems, you can take opportunity to strengthen your email or article or whatever you’re writing by reducing and simplifying.
Tightening up your writing leads to clarity, which leads to greater understanding by readers. Which is the point of writing, isn’t it?
Note: I think the world of middle-school language arts teachers, by the way. They often inspire young minds to become great writers, and their contributions are extremely valuable.
© Tina L. Smith, 2020
About the author: Tina L. Smith is a Michigan writer, editor, and proofreader who resisted the strong urge to add three more paragraphs to this story to make it five minutes long…because it didn’t need three more paragraphs.