Stephen Wilbers: Learn to recognize 5 types of wordiness

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 17, 2011 - 3:03 PM

When Henry David Thoreau wrote about living in a cabin by Walden Pond, he titled his first chapter "Economy." He wanted to explain the economy of reducing life to its bare essentials, of living simply so that he might live richly.

The same approach can be taken to writing. Reducing your language to its essential elements allows you to deliver your message economically, and that economy accentuates the rhythm and flow of your sentences.

As Strunk and White advise in "The Elements of Style," "Omit needless words." Make every word count. But how?

Here are five types of wordiness to watch for:

Redundant pairs. When William of Normandy defeated King Harold of England in the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he brought with him 10,000 French words and Latin derivatives. As a result, he forever changed the English language. The defeated population, forced to learn a new language, paired their old words with the new ones. For more than 900 years, this habit of word pairing has persisted among English speakers.

Watch for redundant pairs such as each and every, hope and trust and various and sundry. Rather than "First and foremost we must become aware of our habits," write "First we must become aware of our habits."

Redundant modifiers. We often hear others using modifiers with words that require no modification, and we tend to mimic what we hear. The general consensus is it's a true fact. The end result is wordiness.

In addition to general consensus, true fact and end result, watch for personal belief, past memory and new initiative. Would you like a free gift for your efforts? What do you think the final outcome will be?

Redundant categories. In their effort to be precise, some writers, particularly technical writers, will state the category of an attribute unnecessarily, as in yellow in color, where yellow is the attribute and color is the category. The attribute needs no modification.

Common redundant categories include round in shape, heavy in weight and extreme in degree. In Minnesota we're fond of cold in temperature. Rather than "The changes were cosmetic in nature," write "The changes were cosmetic."

Meaningless modifiers. A fourth type of wordiness comes from our tendency to become fond of certain words and to overuse them, words such as basically, certainly, actually and indeed.

Basically what I'm talking about basically is a habit that basically is annoying. Rather than "Their decision to go public effectively limits our options," write "Their decision to go public limits our options."

Wordy expressions. Finally (should I have said, "in the final analysis"?), watch for wordy phrases. For example, rather than due to the fact that, in view of the fact that or owing to the fact that, write because. Rather than until such time as, write until. Rather than during the course of, write during or while.

Now for your test: "Last but not least, during the course of editing eliminate wordiness. The end result is an economy that can be basically extreme in degree."

Did you end up with something like this? "Finally, eliminate wordiness while editing. The result is extreme economy."

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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