Hege Library & Learning Technologies

Guilford College Writing Manual

This is the official Guilford College Writing Manual. A collaboration between the English Department and the Hege Library.

Revising to Eliminate Wordiness

Revising to Eliminate Wordiness



                        Sometimes you have to murder your darlings.

                                                            --Mark Twain

            Plutarch, a Greek philosopher and biographer who lived and wrote at the end of the first century, tells us at one point in Parallel  Lives,  a story about a party that took place long ago.

            As part of the narrative, he gives us this piece of description: “Anacharsis, when he had been feasted and entertained at Solon’s house and lay down to sleep, was seen to have his left hand placed upon his private parts, but his right hand upon his mouth; for he believed, quite rightly, that the tongue needs the stronger restraint.”

            Even the ancients, it appears, were aware of the danger of letting their tongues run away from them.

            We’re all in love with our words. And once we write, we hate to cut. It can sometimes seem like taking out living tissue.

            Yet when we read, especially for information, tight prose is the kind we love to read. Such prose is lean . . . economical  . . . vigorous. It’s prose that’s stripped of lard or clutter.

             This lard can take many forms: 

                       A superfluous sentence (that could have been collapsed into a clause)

                        --clause (that could have been collapsed into a phrase)

                        --phrase (that could’ve been replaced by a single word)

                        --word (that could have cut altogether)

                        --syllable (that could have been saved with a shorter word)

                        --punctuation mark (that creates an unnecessary break or pause)

            Here’s the point: you should make eliminating wordiness a separate step every time you revise a paper.

            First drafts are fatty by nature. And it’s right that they should be. After all, when we write a rough draft, we are exploring. There should be tentativeness, repetition. Wordy constructions help by allowing us to slow down to figure out where we’re going next.

            But if we acknowledge our readers’ expectations, we’ll get busy and squeeze this fat out. The question is, how? Many writers find it difficult to distance themselves enough from their prose to even see the fat, let alone cut it out.

            The good news is that wordiness comes in specific and recognizable forms. If you can spot the formation, you can wield the scalpel.

            In Revising Prose, for example, Richard Lanham analyzes what he calls the “Official Style”—the puffy and ponderous style we associate with lawyers, income tax forms, and political speeches. He shows how it relies on a simple verbal formula: a form of the verb “to be” combined with prepositional phrases. Hence these two examples:

                                    This sentence is in need of an active verb.

                                    There is a kicking interaction between Jim and Bill.

            Both sentences feature the verb “is”—probably the most lifeless verb in the language—followed by prepositional phrases (“in need,” “of an active verb,” “between Jim and Bill”).

            To translate the Official Style into regular English, Lanham recommends first identifying the “to be” forms, then substituting active verbs. When you use an active verb, the prepositional phrases melt away.

            So let’s first make the identifications by bolding the verbs and underlining the prepositional phrases:

                                     This sentence is in need of an active verb.

                                    There is a kicking interaction between Jim and Bill.

            Now let’s substitute live verbs which express the sentences’ true actions.

                                    This sentence needs an active verb.

                                    Jim kicks Bill.

            Note that we have reduced the first sentence by 33 1/3%, the second by 66 2/3%. We have also enlivened both. And the writer’s voice has changed from static to dynamic. To achieve the same effects in your own writing, get in the habit of going through your rough draft to look for combinations of “to be” verbs and prepositional phrases.

            Here are ten other ways to cut wordiness:

1. Eliminate redundancy. 

             Note how the underlined words repeat information that other words in the sentence already communicate.

We should not try to anticipate in advance those great events that will completely revolutionize our society because past history tells us that it has been the ultimate outcome of little events that has unexpectedly surprised us.

             Delete these extra words and the sentence races ahead.

2. Strike out excess adjectives. 

        A lively, colorful, explosive fiesta       >       An explosive fiesta

3. Strike out redundant adverbs.

           Slowly and sluggishly, the river flows into the bay.    >        Sluggishly, the river flows into the bay.                           

4. Compress adverb clauses into participial phrases.             

            Because they are fond of travelers, the Eloi are good hosts.    >     Fond of travelers, the Eloi are good hosts.

 5. Compress relative clauses to participial phrases.          

                    Cancer of the breast, which is known to be a leading cause of death in women, too often escapes detection                      in an early stage.          >          Cancer of the breast, known to be a leading cause of death in women, too                        often escapes detection in an early stage.                                                                         

Note how you could further economize by converting the revised version’s participial phrase to a simple appositive:

                    Cancer of the breast, a leading cause of death in women, too often escapes detection in an early stage.

6. Change verb phrases to single active verbs. 

            Once, long ago, someone coined the word “reflect”—a useful verb. It was inevitable that the word “reflection” would follow, to denote the act of reflecting. Still good.

            But then someone else came along, probably an obscure Renaissance bureaucrat, and said, “Aha! I can make reflection double as a verb if I set it in a nice fat phrase.” Thus we got the wordy, unnecessary is a reflection of as a substitute for the energetic reflects.

            In revising, look for some of the hundreds of similar phrases that have crept into common use—and convert them back to the active verbs they once were.

            For example:

                        is a reflection of                       >                reflect

make an investigation of          >               investigate

take into consideration             >               consider

make a compilation of              >             compile

7. Get rid of intensifiers.            

            These are words that George Orwell has called “the leeches that infest the pond of prose.” Rather than adding energy to the words they modify—presumably their purpose—they actually siphon it away. Examples:

rather (as in “rather interesting”)

quite (as in “quite appetizing”)

little (as in “a little tired”)

pretty (as in “pretty good”)

really (“really impressive”)

8. Convert prepositional phrases to possessive nouns.  

            The most expensive condominiums in the world . . .      >          The world’s most expensive condominiums . . .     

9. Delete unnecessary phrases. For example:.

            of some kind                  a lot of

a kind of                       plenty of

a type of

         Also be alert for phrases that can be condensed.Delete unnecessary phrases. For example:

A majority of                  >           most

Due to the fact that         >          because

As a consequence of       >         consequently

At this point in time          >         now

In close proximity to         >         near

          Many more exist. One whole category consists of “tautologies,” which are inherently redundant because of repetition. Ask yourself what’s tautological about the following:

As a general rule

Disappear from sight

Green in color

Basic fundamentals

10. Strengthen weak, wordy sentence openings. 

            Often when we write a rough draft, we slow down at the beginning of our sentences to figure out where the sentence is going. When revising we should knock out these props.

                 It seems that beginning some 20 years ago . . .        >        About 20 years ago . . .

It is significant that . . .        >       Significantly    

Learning is a process that requires . . .        >       Learning requires . . .   

A final word on reducing wordiness:     

           There may be limits to the degree of concision you wish to achieve. Here’s Robert Parker’s detective hero Spencer in Stardust. His reference to Ernest Hemingway acknowledges the latter’s propensity for tight prose.

               I felt like I was trapped in a Hemingway short story. If I got any more cryptic I wouldn’t be able to talk at all.