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How to Avoid Wordiness

@ ProofreadingPal
May 21, 2015
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Cut Adjectives and Adverbs

This is something Ernest Hemingway became famous for. While working as a reporter, he learned to cut unnecessary words and get to the point of a story as fast as possible, claiming that all those extra adjectives/adverbs could be filled in by readers’ imaginations and the context of the story.

Take this sentence: “The frightened woman quickly ran away from the drooling, crazy, rotting zombie.” Is all that necessary? What about: “She ran away from the zombie.” Is this really any different? Or can you just assume the woman is frightened, she’s running fast, and the zombie is hideous?

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Eliminate Redundant Words and Phrases

Here at ProofreadingPal, there are whole classes of words and phrases we delete right away because they are redundant including:

  • Introductory words such as “basically” or “truly.” These don’t really add anything to your writing and thus get cut.
  • Qualifiers such as “very”, “really,” and “quite.” These don’t add anything either. They’re too vague and easily replaced by better words. Take “I’m really hungry,” for example. Is this a good sentence? Or is “I’m starving” better?
  • Linking phrases such as “in order to.” Look at, “I need money in order to buy a trip to Jurassic Park,” as opposed to “I need money to buy a trip to Jurassic Park.” Same meaning, fewer words.
  • Unnecessary phrasing such as the “person who…” construction. Look at, “He is a man who delivers mail,” instead of simply, “He is a mailman.”
  • Finally, some cases involve removing whole sentences. For example, when writing academic essays, some people like to write “In the next paragraph, I am going to discuss the method section.” But, if the next section starts with the heading “Method,” do you really need to say the above sentence? Not at all. It’s clear from context.

Don’t Use Unnecessary Prepositions

Drowning in WordsTry to cut prepositions wherever possible. On their own, they’re small, but they can quickly add up to a lot of excess verbiage. Take this sentence: “The chief of police helped the woman from Azerbaijan.” It seems fine, right? No, because by switching the words around, we can create the much more succinct, “The police chief helped the Azerbaijani woman.”

Avoid Passive Voice

Carve it in stone: You should avoid passive voice wherever possible. For our purposes, passive voice is another way that wordiness creeps into your writing. Take the sentence. “I ate lunch.” A nice simple, clear sentence, right? Well, if you want to say the same thing in passive voice, it would be “Lunch was eaten by me.” Three words become five. Pretty much every “was/is + verb” construction is wordy, and switching to active voice improves the phrasing.

Use Simple Past/Present Instead of Present/Past Perfect and Present/Past Continuous

This is a similar issue. From essays to business documents to novels, it’s much more succinct to use simple present/past tense over any other tense, especially present/past perfect and present/past continuous. Why? Because doing so cuts down on unnecessary words, and, most of the time, you don’t need any of those other tenses because they’re clear through context. For example, change, “I have worked there,” to, “I worked there.” Change, “He was surfing,” to, “He surfed.” Nothing is different, right? There are exceptions, of course, but keep an eye on this issue, and you’ll find lots of instances where you just don’t need those extra modifiers.


Now, let’s look at all of these together. Take the sentence: “The kind of person who eats lots of ice cream in order to feel good is me.” Lots going on in that sentence. Or maybe not. From above you know we don’t need “lots of” because it’s an adverb. We don’t need “kind of person who” or “in order to” because they’re redundant. And we need to change the sentence to active voice and to use simple verbs. So what are we left with? “I eat ice cream to feel good.” This is much simpler and more succinct, and your reader easily understands what you mean, which is the point of communication, right?

Try these tips in your writing. Practice makes perfect (as opposed to, “In order to achieve perfection, you should take the time to practice”). And, for extra help, send it to us at ProofreadingPal, and we’ll sort you out!

Nick. S.

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