5 ways to say more with less

Foul phrases that weaken your writing

Most writers use too many words. That sounds silly, because it’s our literal job to use words. But too often we throw them on the page by the bucketful, like amateur painters trying to recreate a Jackson Pollock. Your canvas of brown splotches affirms how intentional Pollock’s seemingly casual flicks of the brush actually were.

This is how carefully good writers choose words — or, more likely, cut words from a first draft. Wordiness clutters sentences and obfuscates your message.

Conciseness is especially important in blog writing and social media, but it’s nothing new. You might remember William Strunk’s 1918 words: “Vigorous writing is concise.”

That sentiment is behind the slashing you face under a copy editor’s pen. Avoid the bloodbath and delight your editor with these tips to slim and strengthen your copy before you submit.

5 ways to say more with less

>> Which wordy phrases stick in your craw? Comment below to have your tips shared or questions answered!

1. A number of

I see too many of these in instructional writing. My job as an editor is to comment every time, “How many?” Too often, a writer uses this phrase because they don’t know the “number” in question.

Then don’t mention it. Your copy will be better if you can be specific, but when you can’t, don’t waste words showcasing what you don’t know.

  • You’ll face a number of doors. → You’ll face three doors.

  • The police detained a number of suspects. → The police detained suspects, but haven’t reported how many.

  • You have a number of options. → You have options.

2. In order to 

I haven’t met an “in order to” I can’t cut to “to” without changing the meaning of a phrase. 

I hardly know what it means and suspect “in order” hitched itself to infinitives in one of those professions that convinces its practitioners bloated copy sounds smart, like law or academia or the people who teach you how to write a cover letter.

  • In order to start, we’ll need… → To start, we need… 

  • Go to the website in order to officially apply. → Go to the website to apply. → Apply on the website.

  • In order to determine the aggregate volume… → To determine the aggregate volume… 

3. The fact that

You can often lob this phrase from a sentence and be done with it, but sometimes you’ll need to rewrite. 

“The fact that” isn’t incorrect, and it may feel like your only option, but it’s kind of a limp noodle of a phrase, and I think you can do better. Your writing deserves a farfalle or cavatappi — ingredients with the strength to stand up to sausages and creams.

  •  The fact that you’re reading this means… → Your reading this means…

  • I didn’t like the fact that she stood up. → I didn’t like that she stood up.

  • Given the fact that most people aren’t rich… → Most people aren’t rich, so… 

4. -ing verbs

You rarely need the progressive* tense of a verb. Try simple present tense first; it’ll usually convey the same information in fewer syllables.

  • Many families are spending 50% of their income on housing. → Many families spend… 

  • It doesn’t work when you’re standing. → It doesn’t work when you stand.

  • The law, enabling workers to receive an extra $600… → The law, which enables… 

*It’s also called “continuous,” but I like the option that makes it sound like the verbs support universal health care. I Googled the name to sound smart in this newsletter. Did it work?

5. When it comes to

I feel like this phrase came from a clever writer charging by the word. Its sole purpose seems to be to lengthen otherwise concise sentences — or maybe to insert a search keyword with awkward phrasing? Whatever the reason, don’t.

You can usually cut whatever clause this phrase is attached to. (And try harder if you have to work in that keyword.)

  • When it comes to writing a book, motivation is hard. → Finding motivation to write a book is hard.

  • I’m not sure what to tell you when it comes to Mary. → I’m not sure what to tell you about Mary.

  • When it comes to finding the treasure, you’ll want to go to the X. → Go to the X to find the treasure.

Further reading

1. 13 Common, Clunky Sentence Structures That Weaken Your Writing (The Write Life): I wrote this list of editorial pet peeves in an early attempt to rid the world of writing that’s not technically incorrect but, like, could be better.

2. “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times” by Roy Peter Clark: One of the best books on writing I’ve read in years, “How to Write Short” helps you conquer the art of concise, yet lyrical, writing. Clark advises how to hit the right notes in few words.

3. “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White: You’ve heard of this one. But have you read it lately? It’s full of timeless tidbits that encourage fat-free writing.

4. Be concise (Plain Language Action and Information Network) PLAIN, an official group of U.S. federal employees, offers guidance to support the use of clear communication in government writing. Its (easy-to-read, obvs) guidance for concise writing is perfect for making any kind of writing accessible.

5. The Art of Concision: How to Effectively Make Your Point in Fewer Words (Moz): The SEO marketing gurus share stats that explain why you should keep blog posts short and concise, plus a writing process to keep your posts to only the most useful information.

Next month

5 things your editor wants you to know about SEO writing

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