Be concise and cut the deadwood

Note: The WritingEssentials blog is on hiatus. Meanwhile, favorite posts will be published with updates. Ellen ~~

Poetry, which is often compresses a lot of detail and meaning into smaller spaces, relies on finding the exact or right words. With the recent performances of Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet and the only poet to present at the Super Bowl, poetry and resources for writers have been on my mind lately. This lead me to revisit the post, “How to avoid verbiage or unnecessary and redundant words.” All writers need to be sure they are choosing the correct words to express their vision in as few words as possible.

Usage handbooks generally stress the importance of conciseness in writing, in avoiding verbiage or unnecessary and redundant words. The purpose of this recommendation is to focus on language that develops thoughts and adds ideas, to communicate effectively with the reader, rather than to pack in empty words to lengthen writing and to impress readers.

A few years after the 1986 study by Connors and Lunsford which resulted in The Twenty Most Common Errors in Student Writing), Gary Sloan did an interesting, though small and hardly definitive, study which compared first-year student final exam essays with samples from model essays by professional writers (selected from a text used by the students). The resulting list showed different errors in the two groups, though with some overlap. The error of verbiage appeared in both groups, in the fourth position – if again for the undergraduates, the biggest error of misspelled words is left out of the equation as it was in the 1986 study/list. (The work by professionals did not have any spelling errors, but then it was published and had gone through reviews by others including editors, who might catch these as well as mechanical errors.)

Though verbiage is a shared error, professional writers were guilty of it nearly twice as (much) were the student writers. Sloan accounts for this by proposing that although student writers may be guilty of trying to fill up space, “the professionals’ greater facility with language may explain the higher frequency of verbiage in their writing” (303). Professionals were also guilty of using trite expressions, nearly 15 times more so than the students, which Sloan attributes to students having a smaller collections of clichés to draw from.

In general it is advisable to avoid verbiage: pretentious language, repetitions, roundabout expressions, useless words. Blumenthal (English 3200) calls the “deadwood,” while other usage experts use the term “wordiness.” Deadwood results from the lack of careful revision. Of course, in our early, zero drafts, we want to get down our thoughts and ideas out and down in writing quickly. This early stage is not the time for revision or cutting deadwood.

The Little, Brown Handbook (461) recommends guidelines for avoiding verbiage and achieving conciseness:

Cut or shorten empty words and phrases

Use strong verbs

Cut unneeded repetition

Combine sentences

Rewrite passive sentences as active

Eliminate expletive constructions

(Phrases or sentences that begin with “There are/is” or “It is/was”)

Reduce clauses to phrases

Reduce phrases to single words

The handbook (461) provides the following before and after examples:

BEFORE – Wordy

The highly pressured nature of critical care nursing is due to the fact that the patients have life-threatening illnesses. Critical-care nurses must have possession of steady nerves to care for patients who are critically ill and very sick. The nurses must also have possession of interpersonal skills. They must also have medical skills. It is considered by most health-care professionals that these nurses are essential if there is to be improvement of patients who are now in critical care from that status to the status of intermediate care. (88 words)

AFTER – Concise

Critical-care nursing is highly pressured because the patients have life-threatening illnesses. Critical-care nurses must possess steady nerves and interpersonal and medical skills. Most health-care professionals consider these nurses essential if patients are to improve to intermediate care. (37 words)

Most would agree that the after version is better. It accomplishes the job of communicating the important ideas in less than half the words, 37 vs. 88. The before version reads like a first draft: it gets down the important points, but the language is repetitive, clumsy, and even a bit pompous. Richard Lanham, author of Revising Prose, calls verbiage or deadwood “lard,” and offers an equation to calculate the “lard factor” of unnecessary words in any piece of writing:

# of words cut from original ÷ # of words in original = % of lard in original (qtd in L,B 461). When we apply this formula to the revision above, we get 53 words cut ÷ 88 words in original, which results in 60% lard factor.

Verbiage or deadwood also occurs in fiction writing. In a “Repair and Rewrite Session” offered by Jerry Jenkins, a sample of student writing had a 55% lard factor: 101 words were cut from a 191 word passage from the opening. In addition to streamlining the passage, Jenkins’ editing of the student work made it clearer, more precise, and more interesting, thus more likely to appeal to readers. Though online searches for editing for conciseness resources usually turn up academic sites, there are numerous editing checklist for fiction writers. The NY Book Editors’ site, however, offers a checklist along with examples of cutting the verbiage.

Conciseness is not always a desirable goal, argues Kolln in Rhetorical Grammar. While clarity is always a goal, “there are some occasions that call for a celebration of words” (19). Indeed, even Sloan acknowledges that professional writers, while guilty of verbiage, had an ampler vocabulary and a richer diversity of words. The two groups shared the same types of syntactic structures, but “[a] passage like the following was beyond the lexical reach of the students: ‘We used to be a romantic people. Our culture – our music, our drama, our art, our literature – was characterized by the romantic qualities of innocence, intensity, vulnerability, optimism, ardency, mystery, nostalgia, melancholy, glamour, flirtation, guilt, and restraint’” (307).

As with most elements of writing, there is a gap between prescription (style handbooks, instructors) and practice (writing by authors, whether student and beginning or professional and experienced. It is often a matter of style and preference, and unless an instructor or an institution or a publication demands otherwise, authors have a lot of leeway in how they write. In early drafts of course the goal is to get down the ideas or impressions or images as quickly as possible. However, if an instructor or editor or even beta reader is marking your edited prose as “wordy,” it would benefit to pay attention to ways to avoid verbiage or unnecessary and redundant words. Striving for conciseness, for clarity, and for concrete and specific details will help you achieve your purpose and perhaps attract your readers.

(Cited: Amanda Gorman; NCTE.org; Jerry Jenkinsnybookeditors.com)

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