Clutter and flab

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One of the greatest, most annoying problems in much of the regular writing is an unnecessary excess of futile words.

Annoying sentence, don’t you think? It does the job of bringing the message across—but it’s full of words that don’t add to the message. We call this “clutter” or “flab,” and the more of it you root out, the more attractive your writing becomes. In other words: Bring back the curves in the waistline of your writing.

A better version of the opening sentence would be: “One of the greatest problems in writing is an excess of words.” The skeleton of the sentence didn’t change. All nouns and the verb are still there; I only omitted the nonsense in between. “Most annoying,” is useless, because the word “problem” already connotes the fact that it is annoying. “Regular” only slows down the sentence. “Unnecessary” and “futile” are implied by “excess.” These words were drawing the reader’s attention away from the message.

On the other hand, the opening sentence can’t go without the adjective “greatest,” because when you omit this, the meaning will change.

Worse than adjectivism is adverbism. Misplaced adverbs are the sworn enemies of fluent writing. An adverb explains how a certain action is performed.  In the sentence “She whispered softly,” the word “softly” modifies the verb “whispered.” Although it’s not strictly necessary, the word adds some silk to the whisper. But here’s a no-go: “‘Get off my neck!’ he shouted loudly.” Is “loudly” not implied by the verb? Did you ever hear anybody shout not-loudly? Select that word and hit delete. Read the sentence again and hear how much stronger it has become.

When you’re finished writing your draft, go through your sentences word for word. See how much you can cut away without compromising your message and its feel. What’s left is all you need.

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