A Word, Please: The art of trimming sentences' fat

Here's a sentence from article I was editing recently: "What's more — aside from a specialized curriculum — private schools are notoriously known for their smaller classrooms."

It's the kind of sentence that might not command much attention from the reader. It gets the job done, sort of. So this sentence could slip by without much notice. But upon closer inspection, it's a train wreck. And by looking at all that's wrong with it, we find some excellent lessons in how anyone can improve his or her writing.

The sentence starts with "what's more." That's a way of saying "additionally" or "also" or "on top of what I just said." There's nothing wrong with that, especially in speech and casual writing. But this isn't the kind of thing you see much in publishing writing, and there's a reason for that: It's inefficient.

Sure, sometimes a phrase like this can add something. It can tell you it's a big deal that the information to follow comes on top of some information already expressed. But in most cases, there's no reason to tell readers that Fact 2 comes in addition to Fact 1. They can see that already, and they can decide for themselves whether it's a big deal.

The next part of our sentence, "aside from specialized curriculum," we can tell is a capsule of something that must have been stated earlier in the article. Without seeing any more of the article, you and I can glean that, at some point, the writer said private schools often have specialized curricula.

Does that mean we're psychic? Nope. It means the writer is repeating herself. And that means she's wasting our time.

Consider this passage: "Oatmeal is nutritious. Aside from being nutritious, oatmeal is also delicious." That "aside from" phrase wastes the reader's time. Worse, empty, meaningless passages create a sort of droning effect that suggests that maybe you don't have much to say, so you're just kind of blah-blahing on the page.

Nothing makes a reader tune out faster.

The last part of our sentence contains the most serious offense: "private schools are notoriously known for their smaller classrooms." No, it's not the passive "are known." That's an example of how passives can be good. The writer figured, correctly in my view, that lots of people associate private schools with smaller class sizes, and there was no need to attribute that view to anyone in particular.

The problem in this clause is "notoriously known." That's pure nonsense. It's also toxic to the piece. The writer is sending the message, "I'm not paying attention to my words" (and the reader gets the message) "so neither should you."

There are two problems with "notoriously known." "Notorious," according to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, means "generally known and talked of; especially: widely and unfavorably known." So "notoriously known" is redundant. It's also misleading, suggesting that private schools' smaller class sizes are viewed unfavorably.

Despite all the problems with this monster sentence, editing it couldn't have been easier. All I had to do was look for the real information and chop out the rest. When I was done, the 16-word sentence was a more efficient nine-word machine: "Private schools are known for their smaller class sizes."

Interestingly, this awfully written sentence was not the offspring of an awful writer. The rest of the article was pretty good, with a lot of very solid sentences. That tells me that anyone can pen a terrible sentence from time to time.

So, by forming the habit of seeking out and chopping out meaningless words and nonsense, we can all improve our writing.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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