"The most valuable of all talents," Thomas Jefferson famously said, "is that of never using two words when one will do." While true for speech and writing, this quote is particularly apt to the realm of writing.
Since we speak faster than we read, it's easier to get away with a burdensome bit of text in our everyday speech. When writing, however, we need to cut to the chase. In fact, don't you think Jefferson could've edited his famous phrase to something like, "The most valuable talent is never using two words when one will do"? Or, "Use fewer words"?
These ten tips for writing clear, concise sentences will allow you to position your thoughts in a golden frame free of imperfections. Let's get to it.
Our first tip asks you to choose the word that most accurately expresses your meaning. Many of our words possess denotation and connotation. That is, they have a literal meaning (denotation) and an emotional or understood meaning (connotation). For example, if you use a word like "sneaky," people can interpret that a couple different ways. They might wonder if you mean dishonest and mischievous (in a derogatory way), or surprising and silly (in a fun-loving manner).
Instead, choose something more direct and specific like:
Her deviant acts left a lot to be desired.
If you don't mean to be so harsh, you might write something like:
Her silly, fun-loving nature made our road trip one for the books.
Let's advance Jefferson's theory. Forget opting for two words when one will do; we're about to slice three words because one will do. Try to avoid:
I read in order to learn more about the world around me.
I read to learn more about the world around me.
Here's another example:
He'll be back in a period of time.
This can be chopped down to:
He'll be back later.
He is enjoying his new shoes.
He enjoys his new shoes.
Here's another no-no:
A decision was made by Allie this week to create all the illustrations for her novel.
That line should be edited to:
This week, Allie decided to create the illustrations for her novel.
See how this ties directly into rule number two? Avoid unnecessary words and phrases when you can get right to the heart of the matter with the present, active voice. For more, enjoy Active Voice Adds Impact to Your Writing.
Okay, the word "that" is important to the English language. But, we overuse it more often than we properly need to use it. For example, "that" is paramount to this sentence:
This is an example of a sentence that works.
However, you don't need "that" in a line like:
We decided that we were going to the store.
We decided we were going to the store.
In truth, we probably overuse "that" 90 percent of the time.
"There is" and "there are" should send up red flags. They're akin to "that." Let's look at an example of what not to do when starting a sentence:
There are three students who committed a crime.
Three students committed a crime.
In this case, why use eight words when five will do?
Sometimes, repetition isn't only fun, it's essential. It can accentuate a writer's meaning and drive a motif home. However, if your repetition isn't deliberate, cut it out. You'll see repetition in a lot of our "fluffy" catchphrases. For example, try to rework:
In my opinion, I'd rather you research a bit more before taking the plunge.
I want you to research more before taking the plunge.
"In my opinion," and "I'd rather" express the same idea.
As we further immerse ourselves in the online world, our written language tends to become more conversational. When we speak, we often use words like "really" and "so." However, the written word will always be different than the spoken word. Try to avoid sentences like this:
Really, I just wanted him to leave.
So, it was apparent that she wanted him to leave.
Instead, cut right to it with these lines:
I wanted him to leave. ("Just" is like "that." Write it with caution.)
She wanted him to leave. (Not only did we not need "so," there was also an element of wordiness with "it was apparent" and "that.")
"Really" has a few friends who are also a bad influence on our writing. They include:
The same question can be posed to each word. Do you "really" need them? Nine times out of ten, "very" can be cut out of your copy completely.
We try to avoid negative people, so why not avoid negative writing? If you're writing a line in the negative form, guess what that means? There's probably a word in there you can cut out. Much like using the active voice, "positive" sentences are much more direct. Try to avoid something like this:
If you do not have $15, you will not be able to afford a new batch of incense.
You need $15 for a new batch of incense.
In an effort to be clear, we try to be detailed and specific. Sometimes we can overdo it, though, especially if we're overusing "if" clauses. Here's an example:
If you want to be a good student, it's important not to procrastinate.
"If" clauses should put you on high alert. Reach for your red pen and ask yourself if it's necessary. This lengthy, clause-driven sentence can be redirected to something like:
A good student does not procrastinate.
Not only have we eliminated the "if" clause, but also an unnecessary phrase "it's important not to." Plus, doesn't the second version sound more definitive and direct?
Grammarians are averse to adverbs. These are -ly words that spice up verbs. For example:
She quickly jumped off the couch.
Sure, that gets the point across. But, what if you could knock out a word and liven things up with a stronger verb? Then, this sentence might read:
She launched off the couch like a pellet out of a BB gun.
Rules, rules, more rules. No wonder grammar gets a bad rap. Truth is, the rules serve to make you a better writer, not impinge your writing. Embrace them; they'll make you stronger!
Whatever you do, don't let the rules strangle your creativity. When you first sit down to write, it's best to purge all your thoughts and words. Get them onto the page. Then, you can circle back and tweak "this" and remove "that." If you get too caught up in selecting the right word or eliminating the wrong phrase, you might lose your steam (as well as some of your best ideas).
This is a common rule of thumb when writing short stories. Perhaps you'll test your aptitude for clarity and concision with a short tale or two. If so, Get Creative: How to Write a Short Story will get you there. Until then, happy editing!