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The Number One Problem in Writing (And Two Wicked Cousins)

Polonius: … What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.
                               Hamlet, Act II, Scene II

At some point, all writers wrestle with this problem. Those who want to improve their craft attack it with passion. They show no mercy, take no prisoners.

Here it is, the number one problem in writing:

Too Many Words

Few of us enjoy long-winded speakers. And it’s not long that bothers us as much as winded. They fill the air with unnecessary words.

Ditto for wordy writers.

In his book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser says, “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”

I agree. The sentence should not be a shelf for wordy bric-a-brac.

Does this mean long sentences are bad? Or long books? No, many are easy to comprehend, and some are quite clever.

If you can read a work without tripping over the thoughts, enjoy the journey, and reach the end cognizant of the writer’s intent, then the number of words may be irrelevant.

The primary goal is simple clarity, but the writer must also hold the reader’s attention. Here we fall into the black hole of subjectivity. In this hole there are no rules, and the reader is supreme.

Still, the best place to start is to whip out that editing machete and clear-cut your way through some sentences.

Here’s an example:

For me, writing is very difficult. I have a hard time finding the right words. The task often wears me out. In fact, I tend to use too many words when I’m trying to convey my ideas to the reader.

The Machete Method:

For me, writing is very difficult. I have a hard time finding the right words. The task often wears me out. In fact, I tend to use too many words when I’m trying to convey my ideas to the reader.

We’ve cleared the jungle from forty words to sixteen. You might edit differently (remember the black hole). There’s some duplication left, but we’ll use this as it stands in the next round:

Writing is difficult. Finding the right words wears me out. I tend to use too many.

As we work to improve this, beware the first wicked cousin.

Weak Words

Use strong nouns and dynamic verbs. Eschew the passive voice. Avoid adjectives. Kill adverbs. We’ve heard these and other admonitions countless times. Why?

Because they’re true—most of the time.

For every rule, there’s an exception that may work just as well. Here we must remember our first calling: simple clarity that entertains the reader.

So how do we choose the right words?

Common sense says go with what works best most of the time. Strive for strong nouns, dynamic verbs, etc. But be mindful that a weak word may be clearer in the context.

Don’t sacrifice clarity just so your writing will appear strong. If you can’t decide, ask someone whose editing eye you trust. Remember the black hole of subjectivity. You won’t please everyone.

Rather than repeat a list of weak vs. strong words you can find elsewhere, let’s review our edited paragraph.

Writing is difficult.

This is simple and clear, but it lacks punch. While “to be” verbs aren’t anathema, this one can go. Since the context is personal (“For me…”), I suggest this:

Writing challenges me.

Finding the right words wears me out.

As a southerner, I like “wears me out.” It’s colloquial, flavorful. Though I doubt everyone agrees, I’m keeping it.

“Right” lacks the precision we’re after. How about powerful instead?

Alliteration can work wonders for weak sentences. Let’s change “fixing” to picking.

Behold, a truly southern sentence:

Picking powerful words wears me out.

I tend to use too many. 

“Tend” reminds me of Tiny Tim tip-toeing through the tulips. Can’t say I never use it, but I avoid this tip-toeing verb.

We could go with “use,” a good workhorse, but let’s play off our alliteration and substitute pick.

Though “tend” is gone, I want to keep the intent. I suggest we buck the adverb police with this:

Often, I pick too many.

Here’s the new line-up.

Writing challenges me. Picking powerful words wears me out. Often, I pick too many.

Better, but not there yet. We’re hampered now by the second wicked cousin.

Poorly Arranged Words

My wife and I have seen spring peeking around the corner, but plants are still dormant. She calls this “moving furniture” time. Over the years, we’ve moved everything from small azaleas to fully-grown dogwoods.

She points. I dig. (In all fairness, she digs, too.)

It’s a lot of work. Yet every new visitor marvels at the yard.

Wouldn’t it be nice if folks marveled at our sentences? It’s possible, but we’ll have to move a few things around. Look at our paragraph again.

Writing challenges me. Picking powerful words wears me out. Often, I pick too many.

The thought in the last sentence can be combined with the first. Isn’t “too many” where the initial challenge lies? And when I fail, my writing suffers. Let’s try this:

My writing often suffers from too many words.

I like alliteration, but we can’t keep the second sentence as it reads. The thought doesn’t flow well from our new first sentence. However, we can create another alliterative run with a full confession of our problem. Here’s my final recommendation:

My writing often suffers from too many words, weak and poorly arranged. Fixing it wears me out.

Ahhh, confession is good for the soul.

Compared to the original paragraph, we’ve gone from four sentences to two, from forty words to seventeen. No doubt any of you could do as well or better.

If you’ve got a great suggestion, share it in the comments.

Header photo: feric80537 via photopin cc

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