As a professional editor and writing coach, I find different clients making many of the same writing errors. If I had to narrow it down, I’d say these three are the most common among aspiring nonfiction authors:
- Sentences stuffed with “clutter words”
- Long prepositional phrase trains
- Grandiose verbiage
Here are some tips to help you identify and remove these from your writing.
1) Prune Out ‘Clutter Words’
Look for places where you use four or five lifeless words in a row to say something, and replace them with one or two words that directly say what you mean.
“Clutter words” are colorless words that add nothing but clutter to a sentence. Trim them from your writing wherever you can, to add sharpness and clarity.
Example: “… design a presentation in order to create a venue for demonstrating …” can be trimmed and brightened to: “… design a presentation that demonstrates …” We got rid of “in order to” and “create a venue for”—boring phrases that the writing does better without.
Just as cutting away dead branches revitalizes a tree, you revitalize your writing when you trim away dead-wood words. Here are a more examples of effective “pruning”:
. . . are unique in the fact that they have a constant focus on their objective.
. . . are focused on their objective.
. . . have been known to take as long as five years to . . .
. . . may take as long as five years to . . .
. . . and besides, unfortunately, it is all too common for many people to experience . . .
. . . Unfortunately, many people experience . . .
2) Shorten Prepositional Phrase Trains
Whenever you find strings of prepositional phrases lined up like train cars in a long row behind one another, the sentence is halting and awkward. Get rid of all but one or two of the prepositional phrases, and for the others, look for a different way to say the same thing.
Prepositions are words like “to, at, by, over, from, into, on,” and so forth. A prepositional phrase is a group of words that starts with a preposition. Prepositional phrases sometimes pile up, like cars jammed together on a freeway. When you find a string of them, eliminate as many as you can, and the sentence will perk up.
Example: . . . I educated the client throughout the review process by providing her with an explanation of sets of statistics . . . can be simplified to . . . throughout the review process, I explained statistical data to the client . . . Notice how much nicer the rhythm of that sounds, and how much plainer the meaning is. We’ve reduced the sentence from five prepositional phrases to just two.
Here is another example: . . . The writer set the manuscript with the margin comments from her editor by the phone on the desk in the office. Revision: The writer set the manuscript with her editor’s margin comments beside the office desk phone.
We’ve reduced the prepositional phrases from five to two, containing the same information but making the sentence less dull and meandering. By experimenting with different constructions—other than row upon row of prepositional phrases—you’ll find you can say the same thing with more verve and variety.
3) Banish Grandiose Verbiage
Obscure or jargony language (such as we often find in corporate-speak and scholar-speak) annoys more often than it impresses. Replace words that sound pretentious with plain ones that truly and confidently make your point.
Examples: “an obscure point” rather than “a pellucid point”; “variable costs” rather than “variability of cost structures”; “meeting to discuss staff cuts” rather than “bringing leaders from functional areas together around strategic reductions.”
When a writer uses grandiose verbiage, it gives the impression that he is a snob, even if he’s not. It sounds like he thinks he’s better than, or smarter than, the reader. Posturing language usually indicates insecurity as a writer, and I was one of the worst offenders back in my college “term-paper-writing” days. It’s a lesson I had to learn quickly. Pompous-sounding words do not win readers and influence people. Better to write as if you’re speaking to a friend, or having a chat over coffee. Aim for that, and your message will come across much more warmly, naturally, and persuasively.
Jessi Rita Hoffman … book editing by an industry professional