The best sentences use a minimum of words to achieve their purpose. They slip easily into the minds of your audience and don’t give them the verbal equivalent of atherosclerosis. As Truman Capote said: “I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” Here are five ways good editors cut the clutter:
1. Take a rapier to redundancies. Look out for words that are simply repeating what other words are saying. Here are a few common examples of redundant words: (all-time) record, eradicate (completely), (new) innovation, (still) persists, (very) pregnant and at this point (in time). This bad habit is also called tautology.
2. Release hot air. Many phrases, when subjected to an editor’s keen eye, show themselves to have little or no meaning. These include such waffle as for all intents and purposes, the point I am trying to make and in the final analysis.
3. Get active. The active voice, where the subject of the sentence is actively doing something, is crisper and shorter than the passive voice. So write we have cut costs rather than costs have been cut by us.
4. Use lean phraseology. The payments that were made by the bank can be cut to the payments made by the bank or further to the bank’s payments.
5. Avoid circumlocution. This literally means talking around, in other words using a number of words where a few or even one would do. ‘The reason for’, ‘due to the fact that’ and ‘on the grounds that’ can all be replaced by because, since or why. Similarly, ‘has the opportunity to’, is able to and has the capacity for can all be replaced by a simple ‘can’.
Tony Spencer Smith will teach The Essentials of Editing over 4x Wednesday evenings. For further details and to book, click here.
Tony Spencer-Smith is an award-winning novelist, a corporate writer and writing trainer, and a former journalist who became Editor-in-Chief of Reader’s Digest magazine after a career in newspapers. His novel The Man Who Snarled at Flowers won the biggest literary prize in South Africa in 1992. In 2009 his book The Essentials of Great Writing was published in Sydney by Editor Group. Tony is managing partner of the editorial consultancy Express Editors, which writes and edits for corporate, government and not-for-profit clients and gives writing and editing courses