One of the best writing instructors I ever had gave some advice that, for many years, I took too much to heart. “Wordy,” “repetitive,” “you can reduce this passage by a third”—these were among Mr. C’s most frequent comments in the margins of our English papers. My takeaway: the number one priority in revising your work is to cut out as many words as possible.
To this day, I continue to cut. And even when I’m forced into virtual clear-cutting—say when my first draft is several hundred words over the limit—I’ve generally found what survives to be much improved: denser with active verbs and precise nouns, freer of fillers like “it” and hedges like “seems”.
At the same time, I’ve realized that one can take this too far. Does it really improve things to replace “on top of” with “atop,” or “the fact that X happened” with “that X happened”? Sometimes reducing words reduces accessibility. Mr. C. had noted that “the fact that” is, to use his words, “wordy, repetitive, and often a lie.” But “I enjoyed that the Eagles won the Super Bowl” sounds stilted, and “That the Eagles won the Super Bowl meant I didn’t have to teach yesterday” is just begging for “the fact”!
The fact is… that “the fact that” can greatly enhance readability.
So can fillers like “it.” Compare “that the Eagles won the Super Bowl thrilled the heck out of most of my neighbors” with “it thrilled the heck out of most of my neighbors that the Eagles won the Super Bowl.”
Hedges, too, can be crucial. Even those that seem to add no actual content—like “clearly,” “obviously,” and “apparently”—often hedge the existing content in significant ways. Consider the “obviously” in:
Obviously, the U.S. is not a company, but a similar model can still work.
Without this “obviously”, the writer would appear to think it necessary to tell her readers that the United States isn’t a company. “Obviously,” acknowledging their awareness, allows her to state an obvious premise without insulting anyone’s intelligence.
Or consider the “clear” in this review of Alan Moore’s Jerusalem:
The equivalent of Stephen Dedalus here — Moore’s stand-in — is a painter in her 50s named Alma Warren (her name is a clear play on the author’s)…
“Clear,” besides granting that the Alan Moore/Alma Warren connection may be obvious to the reader, casts the word-play idea as a judgment of the reviewer rather than as an explicit intention of the author.
Finally, consider the “apparently” below (from a recent CBS/San Francisco report on a robbery at a Walnut Creek Tanning Salon):
But apparently that wasn’t enough, because he then demanded that she also give him every bit of loose change in the register.
“Apparently,” too, adds little semantic content. But it distances the writer from the judgment that “that” wasn’t enough, attributing it instead to the robber. The irony that results makes those four extra syllabus totally worthwhile.
Some things that have been on my mind:
- Catherine and my many recent conversations about the new SAT reading sections
- Related thoughts we’ve had about SAT vocabulary challenges
- Thoughts on verbosity and hedges (“obviously”, “apparently”).
- The Dreamy Child Syndrome, aka Multi-Factor Introversion (not autism, and not in the DSM!)
- Beyond background knowledge: other background variables in reading comprehension
- How the Curiosity Mindset (or lack thereof) affects comprehension
- Clues that “kids these days” are doing less and less careful reading
- Clues that they’re getting less and less writing instruction
- Thoughts on “Why do you think that?”, “Yeah!”, “It’s a good question”, and “one less thing to worry about”
- The ongoing recovery of the English language from the Norman Conquest (or is it something more sinister?)
- J’s adventures as a college undergraduate
For now, I’ll share the following email exchange—a sign, perhaps, of things to come:
E: Katharine, happy to meet with you. I will have my new assistant help us. Amy, can you help set up a meeting with Katharine next week?
E: I forgot to cc Amy.
K: Great—Thank you, E! Next week I am quite open Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.
A: Hi Katharine. Just wanted to check in and confirm what action you’d like me to take.
If this is an entirely new meeting you’d like me to get on the calendar, just let me know “Amy, please schedule a meeting” and CC in the people you’d like to meet with.
Alternatively, if you’d like me to make any updates to an existing meeting, could you please resend this message in the original thread for that meeting?
For now, I’ll take no action on this.
E: Katharine, Thank you for your patience with my new assistant. I guess “forgot to cc Amy was not understood.” So trying again. I will take over if it doesn’t work.
Amy can you please schedule a meeting with Katharine next week?
A: Hi Katharine,
Does Monday at 11:00 AM EST (Eastern Daylight Time) work?
Alternatively, E is available Monday at 2:00 PM or Tuesday at 10:00 AM.
The meeting will be a web conference.
At this point I was ready to type an exasperated “As I said…”– but something made me to look back through this bizarre exchange.
It turns out that Amy, whose last name is Ingram, has an email signature that concludes with the following details: “Artificial intelligence that schedules meetings. Learn more at x.ai”
Just saw this in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Question: Now I am seeing “reticent” and “reluctant” confused with each other, a development that makes me shiver and remember when “impact” became a bad verb, which it still is. Do you think public shaming via, say, a raucous outpouring of tweets would stem the tide of ignorant folly before it overwhelms and drowns us all in a tsunami of inanity?
I love that. Very funny.
Of course, now I’m wondering whether I myself perceive a difference between reticent and reluctant.
Answer: not really.
Fully agree that impact’s ascent to verb status was a bad development.