As a careful writer, I craft my sentences with something akin to obsession. My writing process is a reiterative cycle: write, rewrite, delete, write, tweak, and rewrite again. I select every word deliberately. I organize every paragraph with intention.
For choosy writers who can relate to this—those of you who don’t write anything haphazardly—getting the revised manuscript back from the editor can sometimes leave you feeling… wounded.
You’ll recognize the motives behind most revisions, but others may baffle you. Some of my clients have asked for clarity:
“My sentence was grammatically sound. So, why did my editor delete perfectly good words?”
Why Good Words Go Missing
When the manuscript comes back from the editor, it’s up to you to consider the revisions and to either accept or reject the proposed changes. You may find that the revised version has a (substantially) lower word count than the draft you submitted. But why? Where did all your words go?
My favorite way to answer this is through three words borrowed from the American Psychological Association’s (2010) publication guide: Economy of Expression.
They advise, “[s]ay only what needs to be said. The author who is frugal with words not only writes a more readable manuscript but also increases the chances that the manuscript will be accepted for publication” (American Psychological Association, 2010, p. 67).
You may not be concerned with getting published, but every writer should be concerned about wordiness and needless repetition. In Zinsser’s (1976/2006) classic writing guide, he warns against clutter in various forms, such as phrasal verbs that needn’t be phrasal (e.g. free
up) and descriptive words that don’t add any meaning (e.g. tall skyscraper).
To illustrate what this looks like in academic writing, let’s identify some elements that don’t lend any clarity or deeper meaning to these sentences (taken from an early draft of one of my research reports—gulp):
The two languages have the same nasal and glide inventories in common (i.e., /m/, /n/, and /ŋ/; /w/ and /j/) with some differences in phonotactic constraints, which I will explore later in this discussion.
What does “in common” tell us that “have the same” does not? Nothing. It’s redundant and unnecessary. (Cut from the team!) Furthermore, “two” is unbearably unnecessary considering that this comes from an analysis comparing exactly two languages’ sound systems. (You’re out!) And while we’re at it, announcing that I would explore the topic later “in the discussion” was probably just as superfluous—where else would I mean? If we’re worried about “later” seeming lonely at the end of the sentence (and I do worry about words feeling lonely), perhaps “in a later section” would work better.
Let’s look at one more:
According to the informants, these words are reported to be palatalized in rapid, casual speech as /ʤan/ and /ʤos/, whereas standard, deliberate, and formal pronunciations would be produced as /djan/ and /djos/.
Having been disconnected from the manuscript for several years at this point, the phrase “are reported to” above seems blatantly needless to me now, not to mention nonsensical if you reflect on it for a moment longer (my informants explained some variation and produced the sound for me—they did not tell me that it has been reported that the sound is sometimes palatalized!).
Clearly, not even cautious writers are safe from the pitfalls of excessive, needless language. We can do our messages justice with fewer words and greater precision, especially in academic writing where content brings its own weight in complexity.
Strengthen Your Writing: Clear the Clutter
Let’s get economical. Below, I’ve shared some sample sentences taken either from my own writing or from clients who’ve kindly agreed to let their work be shared anonymously. Take a look and consider how you might improve them. Are there any needless words that can be removed? Are there complicated, wordy phrases that can be replaced with a simpler one? After you’ve examined the samples and imagined a solution, compare your approach to mine.
- In his own study, Wikström (2014) demonstrated the way that hashtags are multifunctional linguistic devices, facilitating far more than mere topic classification.
- However infrequent, it is true that whom continues to serve a purpose in certain genres, and, indeed, some writers still make use of it appropriately, even if they are confined to academia and scholarly writing.
- The connection between the first two criteria and size is less straightforward than simply stating “more is better.”
- During the interview, it became quite clear that the informant’s view of herself in terms of her cultural identity was far from simple. When asked where she is from, she responded, “I’m from Syria,” and yet this is only a part of the answer.
- This may be viewed as an example of scaffolding that is “contingent on actual need” (Van Patten & Williams, 2007, loc. 5559), as Milly provides only that which is minimally necessary for Lacy to make the appropriate connections. The explanations do not provide anything beyond what Lacy needs.
Finally, consider the three variations of the same sentence below, ranging from needlessly wordy to simple and precise:
- To speak as frankly as possible my dear, I really just don’t give much of a damn.
- To speak frankly my dear, I just don’t give a damn.
- Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.
The added words (and unforgivable hedging) do nothing more than dilute the utterance of whatever quality made Rhett so perfectly quotable. So, what’s the take away?
Extra words don’t give extra meaning. In academic writing, long and complex sentences are inevitable. Ease the task of your reader and give your manuscript readability. If you’ve got an editor that you trust, take a long, hard look at the words that he or she nominated for removal and consider the possibility that fewer words can actually accomplish more.
American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Zinsser, W. (1976/2006). On writing well. New York, NY: HarperCollins.