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"I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time."
 
 
 
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Issue 5
November 2016
Nitpick
Nifty tips on how to write and speak more effectively
 
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Chop! Chop!
How a sucky mark helped me write concisely
 
I’ll never forget that day in Grade 9 when my teacher—“Mr. O.,” I’ll call him—handed back a geography paper I’d written. He’d marked “C-” (or some such lousy grade) at the top of the page.

I was stunned. Geography wasn’t my best subject but still…

Sure, I’d done my research. And I’d written plenty. That, he said, was part of the problem.

I’d written too much. My thoughts on Canada’s geological regions (or whatever it was we
’d been studying) were buried under a mountain of redundancy, complex sentences and weasel words.

His comments cut. But as their sting lessened over the next few weeks, I was able to think about them objectively.

Mr. O. had a point: Less really is more when it comes to writing clearly and concisely.

How can you chop your writing down to size? Here are five tips to help you edit:
 


1. Cut redundant words.

It’s easy to want to state the obvious.

Take the sentence:


The workshop lasted 92 minutes in duration.

Since “duration” doesn’t add anything, shorten the sentence to:

The workshop lasted 92 minutes.

And be careful with acronyms. How many times have you heard people refer to their “PIN number” when what they really meant was their “PIN” (or their personal identification number)?
 

2. Use simple words.

People often use long words to impress, but simpler, more familiar ones make for clearer writing.

Instead of:
  • commence try start or begin
  • utilize try use
  • in regard to try about
  • achieve try meet
For a handy list of substitutions, check out The Plain Language Action and Information Network’s Simple Words and Phrases.
 

3. Replace clauses and phrases with words.

Why use a clunky clause or phrase when a one-word adjective will do?

For example, instead of saying:


People who love camping reserve their campsites months ahead,

say:

Camping enthusiasts reserve their campsites months ahead.

And sometimes, a simple deletion is all that’s needed.

For example, trim:


More than two million people live in Toronto, which is known as one of the world’s most multicultural cities,

to:

More than two million people live in Toronto, one of the world’s most multicultural cities.
 

4. Shorten sentences.

For lively writing, it’s good to vary the length of your sentences, but err on the side of short. You’ll keep your reader’s attention longer if your sentences average about 20 words.

If you’re writing for online, don’t bother with semicolons. Instead, break up your thoughts into two sentences. And shorter paragraphs—about three to five sentences each—work best here.
 

5. Axe “there is” and “there are.”

These phrases (known to grammarians as “expletive” phrases) are a sure way to zap the life out of your writing. Re-word them using a stronger verb.

For example:


There are three women on my street who play hockey,

can be shortened to:

Three women on my street play hockey.

So thanks, Mr. O. Thanks for showing me how a little “chop, chop” can make for clearer and more compelling writing.
 

Photo (above): ©Can Stock Photo/Elnur
 
 

 
 
Sara Bedal is a writer, editor and plain-language specialist. She helps organizations tell their stories clearly, creatively and concisely.
Photo: Angela Durante Dukát, DUKÁT PHOTOS
 
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