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How to Write Clear Sentences

Chop words that add length but not value.

By
Julie Wildhaber, read by Mignon Fogarty
July 15, 2010
Episode #231

 

Today, Julie Wildhaber, who trains writers and editors at Yahoo!, will explain a few strategies for keeping copy compact and for getting rid of deadwood: words and phrases that add length but not value. 

Is Your Prose a Junk Drawer or a Jewel Box?sentencesclear

Good writing is clear and concise and gets to the point. Readers don't want to rummage through a messy verbal flea market to discover one or two sparkly gems of information.

Front-Load, Organize, and Cut

To help readers find your treasures, front-load, organize, and cut.

  • Second, organize to help readers who skim: Create subheadings, limit paragraphs to a few sentences, and break lengthy information into lists.

  • Third, cull anything that isn't pulling its weight. Start with deadwood: useless verbal underbrush that clutters your copy and may be hazardous to your meaning.

Perhaps you've listened to someone who inserts “like” or “you know” in every sentence. That habit is annoying but understandable in conversation, but imagine reading copy peppered with “like”and “you know”: You might conclude that the writer was a few clowns short of a carload. So, to keep your readers' good opinion, which deadwood phrases should you cut?

One-Word Wastes of Space

Look for single-word modifiers that don't enhance your meaning, such as “very,” “really,” “totally,” “quite,” “actually,” “already,” “fairly,” and “much.” You may have seen ads touting a “very unique” product that's “really special” and comes with an “added bonus,” though it may be “currently unavailable.” Words like “very” are unnecessary and frequently redundant: If something is unique, then by definition it's one-of-a-kind; it can't be “more” one-of-a-kind.

Copywriters insert these words for emphasis, but the result can be less emphatic and effective. For instance, what if this podcast's opening had been:

  • If you want to write good copy, make it super-clear and very concise and get to the point as quickly as possible.

That's bad, overpadded writing--23 words long, versus the 11-word original:

  • Good writing is clear and concise and gets to the point.

“If” Clauses Can Be Iffy

That example brings us to deadwood phrases. Our overpadded sentence opens with an “if” clause that is neither compelling nor compact:

  • If you want to write good copy, make it clear and concise and get to the point.

We know that Grammar Girl listeners want to write well, so why waffle with “If you want to”? Replace the fluff with an infinitive:

  • To write good copy, make it clear and concise and get to the point.

That's better, but there are still three verbs: “write,”make,” and “get.” Also, although infinitives are strong openers, “to write” creates an implied subject, “you,” and “you” is not the focus of the sentence; writing is. Ditch the implied subject for an explicit one, and then you can drop a verb, too:

  • Good writing is clear and concise and gets to the point.

Now that's emphatic and direct. Sentences that start with subject and verb (or verb alone) tend to be the strongest, especially if you slap in a robust active verb. In writing, as in movies and sports, most of us like to skip the preshow and cut to the action.

Other iffy phrases to avoid, wherever they fall in a sentence include “if you wish to,” “if you need to,” “if you're looking for,”if you would like to,” and (one with no “if”) “in order to.”

Invigorate Your Verbs

Next, examine your verbs. Are your helper verbs truly helping? Watch out for constructions such as “you can,” “you can choose to,” “you can decide to,” and “you need to.” Some examples include

  • You can visit scenic Deadwood by taking the stagecoach from Yankton.

  • You can enjoy whisky and canned peaches at the Gem Saloon.

  • You can choose to cross Al Swearengen, but he may decide to sheath his knife in your neck.

  • If you want to survive smallpox, you will need to get medical care from Calamity Jane and Doc Cochran.

Replace those “you” phrases with infinitives, imperatives, and other sturdy verbs, or rewrite the sentences:

  • To visit scenic Deadwood, take the stagecoach from Yankton.

  • Enjoy whisky and canned peaches at the Gem Saloon.

  • Cross Al Swearengen and he may sheath his knife in your neck.

  • To survive smallpox, get medical care from Calamity Jane and Doc Cochran.

Keep an eye on the verb “make” when it's used in constructions such as “make a decision,” “make a correction,” andmake use of.” Here's an example of a bloated sentence:

  • Seth Bullock will make a decision tomorrow about whether his calling is hardware or law enforcement.

Change “make a decision” to “decide” for a leaner sentence:

  • Seth Bullock will decide tomorrow whether his calling is hardware or law enforcement.

Summary

Deadwood may seem minor, but those little words can lengthen your sentences and obscure your meaning. Clear out the deadwood, and you'll have copy that is, as the record reviewers say, all killer, no filler.

The Yahoo! Style Guide

This podcast [articl was written by Julie Wildhaber, one of the minds behind the new book, The Yahoo! Style Guide. Check out Chapter 13 of the book for more ways to tighten your text, and visit styleguide.yahoo.com for tips on writing for the Web.

The Grammar Girl podcast is edited and read by Mignon Fogarty, author of the New York Times best-seller Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

Related Episodes

Grammar Girl: Modifying Absolutes

Grammar Girl: Misusing “So” and “Very”

Grammar Girl: Avoiding Redundancy

Public Speaker: Like, Eliminate “Ums” and “Ahs,” Right?

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