Thursday, January 24, 2008

Editing your work: writing tight brings the might

On Words

Editing your work: writing tight brings the might


Jakarta – To write tight is to write right. As mentioned in OnWords’ last column, omitting unnecessary words is a huge part of the editing process. Today we are going over how to identify and purge lazy openers, prepositional phrases and tedious nouns from your writing.

Lazy openers are those phrases like It is vital that and There are, that all too often open the baggy sentences that we write. Lazy openers are guilty of two sins. First of all, they contain forms of the weak verb to be. While at times we do need to use is, are, was, am and so forth, crisp prose contains them at a minimum.

Their second sin is that the words that make up lazy openers are simply unnecessary. Jump right into the action when writing. These phrases are easily cut from most writing and sentences read much better without them. Consider this example:

There is a mindless way to preparing meals which comes hand-in-hand with a mindless way of eating. This mindset is becoming more prevalent day-by-day and continues to bring with it greater and greater consequences.

By jumping straight to the point and eliminating the lazy openers and weak verbs we have reduced the excerpt by a third, giving us:

A mindless way to preparing meals, counterpart to the mindless way of eating, grows more prevalent every day and brings greater and greater consequences.

Although more concise and therefore stronger than the original example, you can reduce it even further:

Mindless meal preparing, like mindless eating, grows more…

Prepositions show relationships of one word to another. Some common prepositions are at, by, for, into, in, on, to, and with. A phrase, a group of words, that begins with a preposition is a prepositional phrase.

When editing, examine any sentences that seem to overly rely on prepositions. A good rule of thumb to follow is to avoid listing three or more prepositional phrases in a row.

The following example displays a number of the indications of excess wordiness that we have been covering:

The explanation offered by the principal of the school about the purpose for the new reading program in the English Department and the reasons that the teachers are not able to satisfy the wish of the parents by meeting with them this week was published in the newsletter.

Whew… What an eye full! How many prepositional phrases do you count in that example? What about the main verb? Is it active or passive? Remember from the last OnWords that we should stick with the active voice whenever possible.

Let us edit the passage by going active and reducing its number of prepositional phrases down to one.

In the newsletter, the school principal explained the English Department’s new reading program’s purpose and why the teachers cannot meet the parents, as they had wished, this week.

This condensed version is simple enough to be understood in a single reading, which is the goal of the effective writer.

One final ill to keep our eyes open for during the editing process is tedious nouns. Words ending with tion, ence, and ment suck the life out of your writing. Look for the weak verbs and tedious nouns that burden this passage:

The suggestion that Jakarta’s population increases and decreases by a quarter at the start and end of each working day, the fluctuation is because housing costs are too expensive near the city center may be incorrect since the benefits of living in the satellite cities are numerous in a variety of ways relevant to both education prospects and entertainment options.

Reading your writing aloud is a great way of judging it. Trust your own ear. Try reading the above. It should be hard to get through. Now, read aloud the revision below:

It is not only the high costs of living in the city center that lead to Jakarta’s population increasing and decreasing by a quarter each working day; people also chose to live in the satellite cities for education and entertainment benefits.

Despite being a third shorter than the original, the edited bit provides the same information as the first while being much easier to understand.

For most type of writing the primary objective is to be understood. By keeping our words as concise and as simple as possible, we are sure to meet this goal.

Happy purging,


This article was originally published Jan. 20, 2008 in The Jakarta Post.

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