Three Things You Should Cut From Your Writing

October 15, 2019

I love watching the NFL (Go Bears!). However, one of the most annoying things about television commentary is the repetitive way in which many former players feel they need to add “in the National Football League” at the end of their analysis – as if the viewers somehow forget every fifteen seconds what league we are watching.

Redundancy isn’t just a problem for former linemen and quarterbacks on TV – it’s a problem that plagues writers as well. It’s one of three things you need to cut if you want to improve your writing.

If you want to improve your writing craft, cutting precious words might be the most important discipline you learn. You want to write in such a way that the experience for the reader is enjoyable. You don’t want to make them work so hard they give up after the first paragraph. So after you’ve written, give yourself some time and space and then come back and use your scalpel to cut.

First, cut redundant words.

To be sure, repetition can be an effective device to communicate a message, but only if it’s intentional and builds to a kind of emotional crescendo.  This is probably best used in speeches. I can think of two examples from history: Martin Luther King’s repeated use of “I have a dream that one day . . . ” paints a mental picture and gathers moral force. We will never forget this speech. Another is Winston Churchill before the House of Commons in 1940: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills . . .” I’m getting goose-bumps as I write.

Both of these uses are intentional. Most of our repetition is not and is kind of a lazy tick in our writing. So if you are creating a piece, for instance, about trains, you do not have to use the word “trains” in every other sentence. Your audience will generally know what you are talking about. So either find a synonym or find ways not have to say the same word over and over again. I find this mistake of repetition to be common among new writers. Over time, you can train yourself to be more disciplined and more expansive in the words you use.

Next, cut unnecessary phrases.

By this I mean caveats (Not that I’m . . . .  but . . .). Caveats should only be used when absolutely necessary. Write boldly; don’t be afraid to say what you are trying to say. When we put too many qualifiers on our work, we communicate that we are embarrassed by our thesis. This kind of writing is so tedious to read. Get to the point.

Explanatory prepositional phrases are also good candidates for the cutting room floor (In the house, after the rainfall, while I was driving  . . . ). Sometimes they are vital, right? You have to let the reader know the wallet was in the glove box and that the quote was in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. But most of our prepositional phrases are nervous filler. Get rid of them. Be clear, but don’t assume your audience is stupid. Too many caveats and explanatory phrases clutter up the cadence of your prose.

Lastly, cut all the ridiculous adverbs.

One common way we misuse adverbs is the use of very,” as in, “he was very tired” or “she was very mad.” Does this add much to the description you are trying to paint? Probably not. If you want to emphasize how tired or mad someone is, maybe reach for a verb that is more descriptive. Here is what one professional says:

“One option is to pick a more descriptive verb to use . . . Another option is to use adjectives and nouns to describe what’s going on. For example, the writer could “cry, with tears streaming down his face, making a sound that echoed through the room, when he she found out that adverbs were off-limits.”

This is good writing. Adverbs aren’t always bad but should be used sparingly (see what I did there?). Instead, take a bit more time and find descriptive verbs and colorful adjectives and nouns. Your reader will appreciate it.

One last word: if you are a new writer, cutting will seem painful. But don’t be afraid of the red pen. It is your friend. As one of my first book editors told me, “Dan, you are not Hemingway; therefore, you need to be edited.”

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