The Lucubrations of a Loquacious Ultracrepidarian

You didn’t really think I was going to write about that, did you? I do know a man with such tendencies, but this post is a listicle about writing more concisely. As the headline indicates, I need a refresher course on that subject from time to time. It’s not easy to break one’s addiction to “verbosity viscosity,” a practice I gravitate toward every time I put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). 

I just love words. And yet, like dark chocolate laced with hints of mint, too much of a good thing can yield blistering headaches. I wonder how many readers of TNL have gotten migraines because of my long-windedness. But that’s not the half of it. “When words are many, sin is not far behind” (Prov 10:19). Oh, dear. 

Most writers know we need to streamline our writing. Alas, the devil is in the details. Here are some specifics on what to look for, reworked from tips I’ve collected from Mark Nichol. I’m aiming them all at myself.

1. Remove Redundancy

Avoid double-teaming terms like “a period of one week,” “end result,” “free gift,” and “personal opinion.” Watch for phrases that echo the quality in question: “oval in shape,” “larger in size,” “shorter in duration,” and the like. Omit redundant words that are already implied as part of an abbreviated term, such as machine in “ATM machine.”

2. Reduce Phrases to Words

Replace a descriptive phrase following a noun with a one-word adjective that precedes the noun. For example,  “People who are experienced at traveling know better than to label their luggage,” can be revised to “Experienced travelers know better than to label their luggage.”

Similarly, a modifying phrase can be reduced to a simple adverb: “Sympathizing with her concerns, he nodded in response to her complaint,” is more concisely expressed as “He nodded sympathetically in response to her complaint.”

Delete extraneous phrases such as “which is” and “who were,” as shown here: “We drove down Lombard Street, which is considered the crookedest street in the world” is easily simplified to “We drove down Lombard Street, considered the crookedest street in the world.”

3. Omit Gratuitous Intensifiers and Qualifiers

Use adverbs that intensify or qualify in moderation: “They had an extremely unpleasant experience” isn’t accurate unless a subsequent explanation justifies the intensifier extremely. Additionally, “I was somewhat taken aback” isn’t necessarily an improvement on “I was taken aback.”

4. Expunge Expletives

No, we’re not talking about swear words here but grammatical expletives. “There is” or “there are” is a weak way to start a sentence. “There is a telling passage toward the end of the story” lacks the focus of (and the more vivid verb in) the sentence, “A telling passage occurs near the end of the essay.”

5. Negate Nominalizations

“The report gave an analysis of the accident” uses a phrase where a single word suffices. (This is known as a nominalization, or smothering a verb.) When you see a “(verb) a/an (noun)” construction, convert the noun into a verb and replace the phrase with it. In this case, “The report analyzed the accident” is the more concise result. As with deletion of expletives, a stronger verb is an additional benefit.

6. Delete Superfluous Phrases

“At the present time,” “for all intents and purposes,” and “in the event that” are just a few of many meaningless phrases that clutter sentences. Trim them to tighten your writing.

7. Avoid Clichés

Likewise, “face the music,” “litmus test,” “tried and true” and other timeworn phrases add nothing to your writing but words; they’re useful only for padding a word count, but instructors and editors (and readers) will notice.

8. Eschew Euphemisms

Generally, words that disguise concepts degrade language, which is all about expressing, not repressing, meaning. For example, “collateral damage,” in reference to warfare (and, by extension, to all interpersonal relationships), invites derision. However, use of some euphemisms, such as those for human disabilities, is a well-meaning effort to preserve the dignity of the disabled.

I’m quite certain I’ll never not be verbose, but if I implement these tips, maybe I’ll be less viscous (or molassesy). Or, to switch the metaphor, I’ll probably keep on serving up word salads in my writing, but I’ll try to do so with reduced-calorie dressing from now on. 

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