Techniques to Cure Wordiness

cheeseitsI’ll tell you a secret. I’ve developed a habit on Sundays. I’m not proud of it, but I’ve come into it honestly. My own seminary training and twenty-plus years of preaching experience have rendered me powerless to avoid it–I recognize when the pastor’s message is over and I shut my Bible and put away the pen I used to take notes. It’s over! He’s done!

The trouble is, the pastor seldom realizes he’s done. He rambles on. Sometimes at burdensome length. Many times he doesn’t even close when he stops preaching, but he revisits what he believes to be salient points in the closing prayer and benediction.

Amen, already!

Good writing, like good preaching, rests on this important principle: the start and the finish are more important than the middle.

In this post–fourth in the series–I want to tackle finishing.

In sermons, there is only one ending–can I get an Amen? Writing, however, has the potential for several endings; sentence endings, paragraph endings, chapter endings and of course, ending endings–“And they all lived happily ever after.”

Work at recognizing the importance and purpose of your endings. And then conclude them with your very best and most dutiful words. 

Consider this sentence: “We need to do something about the difficulties we’re having.” To end the sentence “we’re having” adds nothing, and even misdirects emphasis. What would you want to emphasize in this sentence?

You could choose to emphasize the difficulties to make the sentence stronger: “We need to do something about these difficulties.” Or, better still, you could emphasize urgency: “We need to do something about these difficulties right now!”

Here’s the point: In revising the sentence ending, you’ve added energy, even emotion. It carries the reader forward.

Notice I trimmed the “we’re experiencing” in both improvements. Wasted words! And you know we are all about curing wordiness. When a word restates something that’s already implied in sentence and context, it is fluff you should excise. Difficulties, in the context of the example–of course they’re being experienced. The experience is integral.

“Shari and I are always looking for new restaurants to try.” Cut “to try.” Of course we’re going to try them–why else would you be on the lookout for new restaurants?

Troubles that you’re experiencing … interruptions that are occurring … mistakes that keep happening … Spare us! We get it. And end it with a bang: Troubles! Interruptions! Mistakes! Oh My! Leave your reader wondering, Where do you go from there?

Which takes us to … starts. Next time.


Improving Our Craft

Always on the lookout for ways to get better at what we do, I’ve endeavored a series of posts here that I hope will provide some great insights and thought provocation where our craft is concerned. How does the old saying go? If the shoe fits … Drink deeply!

BullseyeiconMark Twain once said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I’ve written a long one instead.” What he meant was that it takes work to write succinctly. Or as I’ve encouraged before: Write it; then trim it. Nothing can improve our writing like the delete key!

Here I’ll offer a handful of the words you could (read: should) target:

Literally – When something is true in a literal sense, you don’t need to add the word literally. It clutters. The only time you should use the word literally in your writing is when you need to clarify that you’re serious when it is entirely possible that you are joking. Suppose a well-trained athlete wrote, “I literally ran five miles today.” Literally is a wasted word. It should read, “I ran five miles today.” He’s a great athlete. We take him at his word. Now if I wrote, “I ran five miles today” you wouldn’t believe it. (Nor should you!) So if by some miracle I actually did run five miles, that would be a place where literally would bring clarity–Darin’s not kidding, he literally did it. Are you okay, Darin? Do you need oxygen?

Very – Let’s be honest: very is a very weak word. The rock is very hard. How much harder than hard is very hard? Have you ever met a soft rock? When we use very in a sentence we’re attempting to intensify the description. But the description doesn’t need intensifying. Your reader gets it. Rocks are hard. Really. Oh, and there’s another …

Really – Just like very, really is another oft wasted word. “It’s really important that you sign up.” Try this: “Sign up! It’s important!” Do you see what I mean? Really really adds nothing. In fact, it takes away from the aim–which is “sign up!” Sort of like the word literally mentioned above, unless your reader has some reason to doubt the point you’re making, the word really should be chopped.

Totally – I think this one is a holdover from the Jeff Spiccoli vocabulary from Ridgemont High (or perhaps the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), “That’s totally awesome, Dude!” But (imagine this in Mr. Hand’s voice) let’s consider the meaning of the word totally, shall we? It means … wait for it … in totality. Consider this sentence: “I was totally shocked.” Can you be partially shocked? You’re either shocked or your not. So which it is? Write “I was shocked.” That says all you need to say.

I get that we all go kicking and screaming through the trim phase. But try me on this one–cut those words out and see for yourself, your writing will be better for it! Nothing screams literary novice quite as loudly as frequent appearances of literally, very, really and totally in your writing. 

Who Needs an Editor? You!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is just no getting around this truth, author: you need an editor. If I got a nickel for every typo or mistaken word choice that has been found in finished manuscripts, I’d be on my way to wealth. And a good number of those have been in my own manuscripts.

I was recently hired to format a manuscript for self-publishing through Smashwords and CreateSpace. In my initial consultation with the client I asked if the manu had been professionally edited. The client told me that she–the author–had a degree in journalism, and assured me that she had been “over that thing a million times.”

Here’s a reality for you to ponder: when we look at our own writing, we see what our minds intended much more clearly than what our hands actually typed. Read the first paragraph again. You see that I put myself in there–I am not a good editor for my own work. My writing friend, you are not a good editor for your work.

While formatting–and not even looking at the manu like an editor–I found a handful of obvious-to-me mistakes. If I found several while not even looking for them, be sure there are more. I called this to the author’s attention. She was embarrassed. I told her not to be. This is to be expected! I recommended we send the manu to an editor before I format it for publishing. The client agreed. Oh happy day!

We want to produce the best finished product we can. We need to involve an editor. It’s really a small investment that pays big dividends.

Next time: What kind of editor/editing do I need?

Any self-editing epic fails you care to share?


Help! Grammar Man!

grammar man(Call this a getting ready for the start of baseball season edition.)

“Playing right field, number 18, Shane Victorino!”

You know what happens next. The sound system thunders out the Flyin’ Hawaiian’s walk-up music. Then thousands of voices unite to sing along with Bob Marley, the familiar refrain, “Every little thing is gonna be alright!”

But wait! Is it alright? Or is it all right? And with this potential grammar gaff–can anything be all right or alright ever again? This is a job for … Grammar Man!

The Case of All Sorts of Confusion

Grammar man is nothing if not efficient. In today’s episode, the crusader will tackle three sets of confusing words in one fell-swoop. There’s all together (two words) versus altogether (one word), all ready (two words) versus already (one), and finally the aforementioned all right (two words) versus alright (not even a word at all). Oops! Have I let the cat out of the bag? Truth be told, this is one of Grammar Man’s pet peeves. Makes his eye twitch. That sort of thing.

Shall we begin by tackling the words that are really words, first? Methinks!

All together (two words) and altogether (one word) are real words with different definitions. So sorting out confusion here is as easy as understanding definition for context. All together means collectively assembled. The crowd sang Shane Victorino’s walk-up song all together. See? Here’s a trick that will help: When the words all together are called for, you can separate them in the sentence and it still makes sense. The crowd all sang Shane Victorino’s walk-up song together.

The one word version has a different definition. It means entirely. The turkey wasn’t altogether done. Oh no! Don’t eat raw turkey. You’ll get worms! And, referring back to the trick, you can’t break this word into two. All the turkey wasn’t together done. Say what? I’m not sure what that means, but I think I’ll stick with a salad.

All ready and already are very similar to the all together and altogether example above. Start with definitions. All ready speaks of preparedness. Already speaks of time past. And with these two words the same separating trick applies. The turkey is all ready to eat. Cooked through. Carving knives, please? All the turkey is ready to eat. Got it. Heard you the first time. Already? Not so much. The turkey is gone already? All the turkey is gone ready? Aha!

Now to tackle the greatest villain of them all: alright. Grammar Man is a purist at heart. Though society may sway, your wordsmith hero stands firm for the cause. Alright is not a word. All right is the real deal. It is true that alright has gained acceptance in pop culture. Do you remember when you were younger and you’d say “ain’t” and someone would tell you that ain’t ain’t a word? Well, it isn’t, and to prove it, Grammar Man’s grammar checker just rejected it. Ha! Popular use should not a word make. The fact that some have added ain’t to their dictionary … Egads!

Regardless, alright is not a word. Neither is irregardless. Another peeve for another time. All right means satisfactory or okay. All right?

So, when you’re at Fenway and Shane Victorino heads to the plate, make sure you sing really loud, “Every little thing is gonna be ALL RIGHT!” –and correct those around you who sing it wrong!

Irregardless? Are you kidding me? Next time. Grammar Man needs an aspirin.

Help! Grammar Man!

grammar-manHealth Inspectors mandate that signs be posted in restaurant and grocery store restrooms reminding employees to wash their hands before returning to work. Misplace the sign, and the establishment will be fined. Misspell the sign, and, well … it becomes a job for Grammar Man!

The Case of There, Their, They’re Confusion.

There, there! It will be okay. I am a trained professional. As a trained professional, I’ve seen more than my share of there, their and they’re abuse. Would you look at that sign? Meant to enforce health standards, while at the same time numbing our culture’s literary senses at the same time. To the rules we go!there

There is primarily used in our language to represent a place. Consider it in comparison to the word here. It’s either here, or it’s there. Now–steady yourself–there can be used as an adverb, a noun, a pronoun, an adjective and even as an interjection. There, there! But primarily–say it with me–there represents a place.

Their is a possessive pronoun. It is used to show possession, as in ‘who does this belong to?’ It’s theirs. Some grammar geeks recognize their as a possessive adjective where contrast is inherent in the sentence–this is our car; that is their car–because it stands in adjectival description. (And just so you know, moms and dads will light up with pride when their son or daughter uses the phrase stands in adjectival description in a sentence. Try it sometime.) A clue: if you can ask the question ‘whose ____?’ then their is your word. Too bad our sign maker didn’t ask that question. Whose hands? Employees? Oh–so THEIR hands. Voila!

They’re should be the easiest not to confuse. It’s a contraction. The apostrophe replacing the missing letter is a dead giveaway. They’re is short for they are. Only use they’re if you’d be able to say the same thing using they are. But–and here’s the real gem–be sure to use they’re if you’re meaning to convey they are. Most common of all the there, their, they’re confusion is for people to mean they are and mistakenly choose there or their. There coming for dinner. NO! Their on their way now. NO! They’re coming. They’re on their way.

Be vigilant about this, my dear friends, because spell-checker won’t be. It’s true. When you write a document and spell-check it, unless it has a grammar component to it, your spell-checker will fail to point out these misuses. If they’re spelled correctly, though they are there in your document, their particular grammatical usage may go unchecked. So there is no substitute for you knowing how to use there, their and they’re. Get it right. Make Grammar Man proud. And don’t eat in an establishment that gets the hand washing sign wrong. I mean, if the sign is wrong, how much confidence do you have in their ability to wash their hands?

What grammar gaffes have you spotted recently? Egads!