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Q&A: What techniques do you use to cut clutter, wordiness, jargon, etc. from your writing?

Q: “What techniques do you use to cut clutter, wordiness, jargon, etc. from your writing?”

A: Andrew P. Johnson, Ph.D., Professor of Holistic Education, Department of Special Education, Minnesota State University, Mankato, Mankato, MN:

“What you don’t include in is just as important as what you do include. Splash your words on the page. Write your draft without regard to length or redundancy. Get the whole mess out there. First focus on and revise sentence-by-sentence. With each, only include the information that needs to be there to communicate the idea. NO EXTRA WORDS. Then focus on and revise the paragraph. Have you made the same point more than once? What doesn’t need to be there? What doesn’t the reader need to know? (The importance of having a sense of audience.) Then focus on and revise the section. Is there any redundancy? What doesn’t need to be there? How could things be said simplier? (It’s okay to simple it up. Nothing sounds quite so stupid as somebody trying to sound smart.) Simple words and sentences are the most effective and efficient for carrying big ideas. What you don’t include is just as important as what you do include. In the music of writing, the rests are just as important as the notes.

I know when I review book proposals or journal submissions I sometimes find myself wanting to yell to the writer, ‘GET TO THE POINT!’ Many beginning writers make the mistake of thinking an article, chapter, or books calls for you to dump everything you know about the subject at hand. Information dumping results in long, nebulous articles that force the reader to fish around to find your point – and which often are left unread. (Short, precise articles and chapters have a MUCH greater chance of being read.)

This points to the importance of really defining your question or the focus when writing a chapter or article. Restrain yourself. Refrain from kitchen-sinking (throwing everthing in but the kitchen sink). You may have a lot to say or a lot of really good ideas … however, unless these ideas related directly to your question or focus — save them for another day. Put them in another chapter, article, or book.”

A: Barbara Waxer, Author of Internet Surf and Turf: The Essential Guide to Copyright, Fair Use, and Finding Media, Adjunct Faculty Santa Fe Community College:

“Speaking as both an author and a developmental editor, here’s a quick and efficient method:

  • In Word, turn on Track Changes and change the view to Final (so you see only the edited version, not the edits)
  • Change everything to active voice, if necessary
  • Delete every adjective and adverb
  • Break up any sentence that has more than one clause and delete any nonessential clauses

Now you have a stripped-down document that shows only the essentials. Accept the changes that insert active voice, then carefully reinsert adjectives and adverbs that actually enhance or clarify the point. If you’re not familiar with Track Change, reject the changes you made initially.”

A: Rae Andre, Professor, Organizational Behavior and Theory, Northeastern University, Boston, MA, and author of Organizational Behavior: An Introduction to Your Life in Organizations (PrenticeHall 2008):

“I’ve reduced clutter by following, religiously, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. You will never suffer from the ‘verys’ or ‘the fact thats’ again.”

A: Barbara Audet, Assistant Professor, Journalism, Ithaca College:

“There is a new edition of the classic Strunk and White out that is illustrated. Circling these in your copy is one way to flag words that I call ‘comfort zone words.’ My recommendation is on first draft you include them, because your brain is wired to get that next thought out using them. Just know which words are your pet offenders. Circle the howevers, the verys, the yets, the stills, etc. and delete them. Your writing will have so much more power in the end. You will see these are generally not necessary but we are taught to use transitions from such a tender age, it is a hard habit to break.”