Extra words, extra phrases, extra sentences: In our writing, these fail to qualify as bonuses. They act as drags, and they delay getting to the meaning.
A reader of this column recently commented that someone who uses bloated language is trying to create “the illusion of fluency.”
Real fluency springs from simplicity.
Think of a river’s flow: Clusters of rocks in a riverbed create rapids. Removing rocks from our writing produces a smooth flow and clarity. Getting to the verb hastens a sentence’s meaning.
An example of bloated writing:
“Let me close by saying that Pleasantville remains unbelievably quiet. There are tents on Main Street in front of Sam’s and O’Leary’s that offer an outdoor dining option, but many of the stores remain closed and some will probably not reopen. On many days, there is not a single person walking across the park. Saturday night was an exception, as a few hundred people gathered in a vigil in remembrance of George Floyd.” (73 words)
Now, the same meaning, written simply:
“Finally, Pleasantville remains quiet. On Main Street, Sam’s and O’Leary’s offer outdoor dining, but many stores remain closed, some probably permanently. Some days, no one enters the park. But Saturday night a few hundred gathered to remember George Floyd.” (39 words)
We have reduced the word count by 34, cutting such bloat as, “Let me close by saying …”
And consider the usage, “There are tents on Main Street … that offer.” Whenever you notice that you have written “there are,” think of how to both economize and strengthen your sentence.
So, get rid of the “there are [noun] that” construction and start with the subject — Sam’s and O’Leary’s — then get to the action: “offer.”
Economize further by changing “many of the stores” to “many stores.”
Can you shorten the sample paragraph even more? Let me know how you end up with fewer than 39 words.
A side note: Notice, please, that it is “fewer” words; not “less” words. With rare exceptions, when something is countable, use “fewer.”
Back to clearing those rapids: fewer rocks, less trouble; no rocks, no trouble.
Twin Cities writing coach and Emmy Award winner Gary Gilson has taught journalism at Colorado College. He can be reached at writebetterwithgary.com.