A Word, Please: The fact is bad writing really upsets her

Ask any grammar buff what separates good writers from the not-so-good and you’ll probably get an answer like misuse of “lay” and “lie” or dangling participles or “who” in place of “whom.”

But to me, these issues are minor. In my experience, one writing problem dwarfs every piddling usage error you can imagine. That problem: wordiness.

Consider this sentence, which appeared in an article I edited: “What's more — aside from a specialized curriculum — private schools are notoriously known for their smaller class sizes.”

That’s right. They’re “notoriously known.”

Obviously, that’s a poor adverb choice. “Notoriously” connotes something bad, while small class sizes are obviously good. But the question of which adverb to use here obfuscates an even more important question: Why use an adverb at all? Does the statement “private schools are known for their smaller class sizes” need adornment?

Professional writing eschews adverbs that add no information. That’s why “The car was fast” sounds more professional than “The car was really, really, totally, unbelievably fast.” Those adverbs convey nothing of substance. Compare that with “Sharon left quickly.” Thanks to the adverb, that sentence says more than “Sharon left.” So, in this sentence, the adverb pulls its own weight.

But the unnecessary adverb in our example sentence is a relatively minor problem. The big problem is that this sentence uses 17 words to say what it could have said in nine.

Start with the opening clause “What’s more.” It means “in addition to what I just said, I’m going to say something else.” The reader already knew that the following sentence would contain “more,” building on what was just said. So this is a waste of words.

Then comes an even bigger waste of words: “aside from a specialized curriculum.” Obviously, the text that came before this sentence had something to do with a specialized curriculum. So why is the writer mentioning it again?

This illustrates something pros know and amateurs don’t: There’s almost never a reason to say “Aside from what I just said, I’m going to say something else.” Instead, pros just say it.

Editing this sentence, I deleted everything before “private,” streamlining those 17 words down to “Private schools are known for smaller class sizes.”

What’s so awful about wordiness? True, it may not be the end of the world if a reader has to slog through 17 words to get a point that could be made in nine. But because pros aim for an “economy of words,” streamlined writing looks and sounds like something you’d read in a top-quality publication. Fatty, inefficient sentences do not.

Here are some more before-and-after shots of wordy sentences I’ve edited. Decide for yourself whether the shorter forms seem more professional.

Before: “A display of the collection will be on site in the main pavilion.” After: “The collection will be on display in the main pavilion.”

Before: “With the idea that instead of shopping all around New York, the attendees could have the city's best shops brought to them, retail outlets were set up with unique offerings of fashions, home decor, toys and cookware.” After: “New York's top retailers set up boutiques at the festival, creating a one-stop shop for some of the city's finest fashions, home decor, toys and cookware.”

Before: “At present, the university has 15 schools and 52 departments.” After: “The university has 15 schools and 52 departments.”

Before: “Two major aspects of the infrastructure revitalization will include revamping education and healthcare systems.” After: “The education and healthcare systems will be revamped.”

Before: “The band has sold more than 20 million records and scored 12 American Top 40 hits during its career.” After: “The band has sold more than 20 million records and scored 12 American Top 40 hits.”


JUNE CASAGRANDE is 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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