Working toward tighter writing

Tight writing improves clarity.

Think of giving a friend directions to your house or apartment: Would you send her down the same street twice, guide her onto dead-end roads, force her to maneuver through the bumpiest streets in town and tell her to take unnecessary detours?

Of course not.  But including unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases and other words does just that. The goal of writing is to inform, instruct, persuade or entertain, not to confuse. (At least not for journalists.)

Learning to spot those unnecessary words and phrases will make you a better writer and a better editor (whether of your own work or that of others).

Let’s take a look at some recent Kansan writing that needed pruning. You will find another example in a separate entry, “I think I am underneath; therefore I am not in the attic below. Or am I?”


Sometimes, tightening writing is simply a matter of removing a word or two:

•  Academia indicates a college or university, especially in a university newspaper. So in the example above,  we could have said academia or, better yet, college. We didn’t need both.

•  At right, p.m. indicates afternoon or evening, so we should have said 5 this afternoon or 5 p.m. today. No matter what form you use, though, 5 is not nighttime.

•  A record, when set or hit or reached, is by definition new. So record was all we needed in this sentence about the endowment association. In a comparison, there might be justification for citing an old record and comparing it to a new record. In this sentence, though, we needed only record.

•  Rarely do we need located when giving an address, and it is often redundant in other examples, as in the one at right.

•  Something is founded only once, so we should have deleted originally in the example above.

• A plan indicates something proposed, so we could have called this a plan or a proposal. We didn’t need both.

•  Six years is a period of time, so saying six-year period, as in the example above left, is redundant.

•  In most cases, journalists write about the present. So unless we are comparing things in the past and present or present and future, there is no need to add currently. The same reasoning applies to now.

An aside: If you do need to make a comparison in time, don’t substitute presently for either currently or now. Presently means soon or a short time later, as in Presently, I will provide another example.

•  Public is by definition general .

•  Similarly, Lawrence is a community. We can call the city Lawrence or we can refer to the community, but rarely would we use Lawrence community. In this case, none of these variations makes sense. Anyone from anywhere can sell books at the Dusty Bookshelf. The sentence needed to be rethought.

•  Sometimes, tightening is simply a matter of logic. If the event is called International Awareness Week (no need for quotation marks), of course it is an all-week celebration.

•  Other times, deciding whether to delete a modifier can be more difficult. We still need to apply the same sort of logic, though. In the example above right, the context of the sentence (a future event within the week) makes the word coming unnecessary. Had it been the previous weekend, we might have said over the weekend. (Beware of the words last and next, though, because they can cause confusion.)

•   In most cases, use coming rather than upcoming. Use of upcoming isn’t wrong, per se, but Bremner, for one, argues that adding the up prefix is redundant. The extra syllable also makes it a clunkier word.

•  On a daily basis can usually be shortened to daily.

•  Settings (in the example above right) tells us nothing more than concerts. Getting rid of it also helps line up the parallel construction: “Lange … plays bass clarinet for concerts and baritone for marching.”

•  Administrators no doubt spoke to the reporter about a six-year period, but we should have been more conversational and said within six years.

o   An aside: Remember that we refer to people as who or whom, not that or which. See Who that?

Stacked prepositions

•  In these two examples, there’s no reason for two prepositions. Just say off Louisiana and off Jayhawk Boulevard.

Extraneous phrases

•  In some cases, in an effort to can be used to avoid false purpose. There was no need in the example above, though. The group was working with others to explore. Even that is misleading in this case. The group needs (or wants) University recognition to legitimize itself. It doesn’t need anyone’s permission to explore the influence of horror films.

•  In the example at right, earned the honor of being is just a wordy way of saying was. Similarly, on a national scale could be shortened to nationally.

•  If someone always has been, then by definition the person is.

•  In the sentence at right, if admission doesn’t cost a dime, then it’s free. Why not say that? And chose to adds nothing. We can just say can spend.

Gets is an inelegant verb at best in this sentence, and the awkward phrasing (apparently to avoid passive voice) forces even more words into the sentence. Here’s what we might have done:

o   Admission for students, faculty and staff is free and comes with five tickets, which can be spent on any carnival ride or game.

•  Watch for between … and constructions like these. They can always be tightened:

o   The report is expected to take six to nine months.

o   Iler said she expected 75 to 100 student volunteers.

•  Sentences sometimes need a total of for clarity, but that is rare. My guess is that the writer was trying to avoid starting this sentence with a number. But why? Starting with a number is perfectly acceptable, especially with small numbers like eight. If the number were, say, 875,683, I’d recast the sentence to avoid it. In this case, though, I’d write this:

o   Eight agencies attended the meeting …

•  The example above is unique, but the general problem is common. In this case, the story is about how students can sell unwanted clothes (and other possessions) for cash. So at a store that gets nearly all its merchandise from people wanting to do that, we can take out from people who bring in merchandise without losing clarity.

Deciding what to put in and what to take out is a balancing act in any story. With any word, phrase, sentence, quote or paragraph, ask what this adds in terms of clarity, meaning, analysis, cadence, etc. Don’t delete things willy-nilly, but make sure words earn their way into stories.

But don’t tighten too much

•  Using the fewest words to express something isn’t always the clearest or most appealing way to write. That especially holds true when we try to cram too much into a compound adjective. In this sentence, the phrase surgical-mask-clad spectators rolls off the tongue with all the grace of a lead weight. Unpacking that adjectival phrase gives the sentence a much more conversational tone:

o   The thought of Memorial Stadium filled with spectators in surgical masks …

o   Or, perhaps: The thought of Memorial Stadium awash in surgical masks or devoid of spectators …

As always, use common sense. Our goal should always be to strengthen writing, whether our own or someone else’s.

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