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Verbal Gobbledygook: Editing Extra Words Out Of Your Writing

Many writers struggle when it comes to editing extra words out of their sentences. Finding extraneous words and knowing when to delete them can be tough, and if you’re a novelist working on a book or a short story or essay writer, you can’t depend on your editor to line edit your prose. Wordiness and bad sentence structure repel busy editors. Serious writers must learn to self-edit and get rid of unnecessary words.

Ever wonder how those inefficient, extra words creep into our texts? Imagine you’re a freshman in high school. Your teacher has assigned a 500-word essay, but you have approximately 20 words of wisdom to share. You’ve already used two-inch margins and triple-spaced the whole mess, but you need more words…so you resort to that old standby: verbal gobbledygook.

It starts out like this:

One of the points that I am trying to make here is…
I strongly believe that it is important to realize that…
Then, to keep the momentum going, you throw in a few choice phrases:
The reason why is because…
At this point in time…
In terms of…
Due to the fact that…
Generally speaking…
It is my opinion that…

And finally, to appear sophisticated, you use big words when other, simpler words would suffice:

On account of. What’s wrong with because?
Irregardless. Yikes. This word needs to be eliminated altogether.
Utilized. Again, what’s wrong with use?
Basically. There are very few occasions where this word is necessary.

In the end you have your 500 words, but a good English teacher will strip your piece right back down to the original 20 words anyway. You’ve wasted your time and, more importantly, your teacher’s time.

Don’t let this bad habit affect your writing today. Whether you’re writing a business letter or a novel, keep in mind that people today are multitaskers. They’re impatient and anxious to get right to the point. When you use clear, concise language, you get your message across in a way that appeals to these busy folks.

There’s nothing wrong with using an interesting new word here and there, but don’t write with the thesaurus open beside you, searching for fancy ways to say simple things in every sentence. New writers often make this mistake, operating under the assumption that sprinkling multisyllabic words throughout their text will be impressive. Stick to writing more naturally, and avoid alienating your readers.

Whatever you write take the time to go through and weed out unnecessary words and phrases. “She wondered about the fact that he wasn’t there” can easily be changed to “She wondered why he wasn’t there.” In the examples above note the prevalence of the word “that”—something to watch out for when you’re looking to trim fat. In fact, there’s a good simile: writing is like a great steak.

If the customers have to spend several minutes cutting off gobs of fat to get to the good stuff, they will probably get irritated and won’t return to your restaurant.

H.W. Fowler said it best in The King’s English:

Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
Prefer the short word to the long.

Finally, one last point to consider. If you’re writing in the short prose genres, you should know that editors of literary journals are more likely to accept shorter, tighter pieces than longer, rambling ones. The Internet has shortened the attention span of the reading public in many ways, and the average word count for short prose pieces is decreasing. The length of your short stories and essays matters. When your writing is concise and precise, you’re more likely to connect with a publisher. If you’ve figured out how to get rid of extra words in your sentences, but don’t know where to send your writing, Writer’s Relief can help.

Writer QuestionsQUESTION: Which wordy phrase sneaks into your writing?

9 Responses to Verbal Gobbledygook: Editing Extra Words Out Of Your Writing

  1. This really helped open my eyes to what I may be doing wrong.
    I tend to think using strong vocabulary is highly necessary, when really, simplicity may be the key.
    Thank you all for this.

  2. I find it useful to periodically review Strunk & White, The Elements of Style, and Stephen King’s On Writing. Another good resource is On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Since I write from time to time on military subjects, I make every effort to keep the military acronyms to a minimum and avoiding deadening Pentagonese which evades personal reponsibilty, e.g., calling an invasion a pre-emptive strike

  3. Very appropriate for me right now. Just got back some critiques on my manuscript and although overall feedback was very positive,”wordiness” was something that crept up. Thankfully, I was given much more direct examples and instances throughout the piece to help me understand what I need to watch out for. I also found I used waaay too many adverbs. :)

  4. I think everyone can get into that “high school essay” mindset. It’s difficult to snap out of sometimes but all of these red flags are really helpful to look out for. I’m writing a short story right now that is on the longer side. I think I’ll go back through it and see if there are some of these phrases to eliminate. Thanks!

  5. H.W. Fowler said it best in The King’s English:

    Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
    Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
    Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
    Prefer the short word to the long.

    Prefer the musical to monotony.
    Prefer the magical to dull fact.
    Prefer the universal to the personal.
    Prefer revolution to the the status quo.

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