From the Newsroom


Raji Chacko

Nowadays, one of the most popular themes on the Net, television or even in print seems to be weight loss. If someone is offering exercise tips, others are providing advice on what to eat while some others offer surgical remedies to deal with flab. One such technique that seems to be gaining popularity is liposuction. The goal of my piece today is to help you undertake a liposuction of your written work so that the fat is demolished and what emerges is a robust article.

In school, and sometimes even in college, most of us are taught to value word count and number of pages over the quality of writing. The more words you use and the more pages of writing you produce, the greater your intelligence and ability. It is not surprising that as adults most of us, consciously or unconsciously, use the same formula, not realising how much it weighs our writing down. To shed some of this weight, it would help to ask yourself some questions about the way you write.

Do you need an intensifier?

A friend once pointed out that my conversations were often peppered with the word honestly. It’s probably because you are dishonest by nature and making an attempt to change, she joked. I was appalled. I was using a crutch when I had two perfectly good legs; I was relying on an adverb to convey the strength of my belief when just stating my beliefs as is would have sufficed. Most intensifiers are like that.

Intensifiers are adjectives or adverbs that have little semantic content of their own but intensify the meaning of the word or phrase they modify (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/intensifiers). However, in most cases the intensifier and the word it modifies can be replaced with one word that means the same. “It was an exhausting trek” is the same as “It was a very tiring trek”. If you don’t believe me, try typing in “exhausting” and look up the dictionary entry in MS Word; the first meaning is “very tiring”. One way of enhancing your vocabulary is looking up the dictionary or Googling for alternatives to such intensifiers — “ravishing” instead of “extremely beautiful”, “brilliant” instead of “very clever” and so on.

Do you need the repetition?

Ask an editor what his or her pet peeves are and you might find that redundant words are a common irritant. What irks many is some writers’ determination to ignore the full form of abbreviations.

For instance, “ATM” as defined by the dictionary is “automated teller machine”, so when some writers say “ATM machine” it actually means “automated teller machine machine”. “HIV virus”, “NYSE exchange” “a meeting of ASEAN nations” are all examples of such usage.

Redundant words are not limited to abbreviations, unfortunately. “Advance notice” is a popular bureaucratic term. The dictionary defines notice as “information or a warning given in advance of something that is going to happen” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary). As you can see, “advance” is already a part of the meaning of notice. So “advance notice” would mean “advance information or a warning given in advance of something that is going to happen”. When you read it like that, you will realise how ridiculous it sounds. Such usage is common because we do not bother referring to the dictionary for meanings or use words without understanding their meanings.

For instance, consider this: “The cricketer announced he would be writing an autobiography of his life”. If the writer understood that “autobiography” was defined as “the story of a person’s life, written by that person” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary), then he or she would realise that “of his life” was redundant in the above sentence. To guard against this, use a dictionary when writing, look up meanings you are unsure of or refer to Google to determine whether your word usage is redundant. (http://grammar.about.com/od/words/a/redundancies.htm is a list of 200 combinations of redundant words.)

Do you need many when few might suffice?

Similarly, you could take a look at your writing and see if some phrases/clauses can be replaced with a word. “Many people who were in the audience had been teaching for years” (12 words) can be rewritten as “Many in the audience were experienced teachers” (7 words). “After the defeat of the Evil King, all of the property belonging to the Gross family was confiscated by the New King” (22 words) can be rewritten as “After the Evil King’s defeat, the New King confiscated the Gross estate” (12 words). “The lack of clarity as to the division of authority has led to a situation in which both regional governments and the central government engage in the exploitation of land and natural resources” (33 words) can be rewritten as “Unclear division of authority allows regional and central governments to exploit land and natural resources” (15 words). You get my drift.

This is not an easy task and when I first started working as an editor, I would let many such verbose sentences pass. We are all familiar with this wordy style, thanks to our education system. Therefore, correcting it is not a natural instinct for many of us. It will have to be cultivated by extensive reading and conscious recognition of concise writing styles. It will also mean re-reading your work to trim the excess.

Do you need the expletive?  

In this context, expletive does not mean a rude word. I am referring to expletive construction, a grammatical term that refers to something a sentence doesn’t really need. “There are many instances of his generosity that are cited in the books” can be simply stated as “The books cite many instances of his generosity.” The “there are” adds no value to the sentence, instead making it long winded. “It is a fact that the sky is blue” actually means “The sky is blue”. “There is/are” and “It is/are” are popularly used to prop up healthy sentences that function well without the support.

Do you need to nominalise?

Nominalisation refers to forming a noun from an adjective or a verb. For instance, in this sentence: “The recognition of his talent came late”, the noun “recognition” is formed from the verb “recognize”. Nominalisation often results in longer sentences. For instance, the above sentence could have been written as “His talent was recognized late.” “The creation of the world was accomplished in seven days” could have been better stated as “The world was created in seven days”.

I have attempted to discuss some aspects that can weigh down your writing and make the readers’ task laborious. However, there are other tips you could pick up as well. I would recommend a diet of educational reading and a regimen of writing practice to achieve the desired shape for your final article.

 These links are for academic resources that discuss tips like the ones above, to aid in concise writing. These are links I referred to as well to draw up a structure for my article:

http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/concise.htm

http://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/ClearConciseSentences.html

http://grammar.about.com/od/words/tp/clutter_tips.htm

http://grammar.about.com/od/words/a/clutter_tips2.htm

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/572/01/

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