Pressing Issues

Tighter prose improves writing

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Although drummed into reporters and student journalists for decades, concise writing is still difficult to achieve.  Multiple readability studies verify the mandate that shorter words and shorter sentences are easier to read and understand.

Use is better than utilize, for example.  Give is easier to comprehend than contribute.  Today’s readers are in a hurry, especially when consuming online copy.  Only one of six adults read word-by-word online, according to Dejan Marketing Remarkably.  You need to please those harried individuals, so don’t bog them down with excessive wording. 

 “How do people read online?’ asked Ann Wylie, popular writing workshop leader.  “They don’t read, they skim.  So write skimmable web copy.”

Two of the most successful ads from the past century contained Volkswagen headlines “Lemon” and “Think Small.”  Short words can carry your meaning. 

I add a third short rule for my newswriting classes: paragraphs.

Many students — exposed to high school and college literature teachers — think each paragraph needs to explore an entire topic before its conclusion.   

When a graph gets near 10 lines in a newspaper column, it starts turning gray.  One recent Associated Press sports story begins with three nine-line paragraphs, then continues with 14- and 12-line graphs.  Copy ends with more respectable paragraph lengths of seven, eight and eight lines.  This top-of-page story resembles a boring textbook.

Shorter paragraphs do another service for readers.  They give a break to the eyes, with the indent at the start and white space in the final line.

Another common tip to improve writing is to avoid excessive wording.  Eliminating excess words will cut the clutter in our prose.  Those cropping up frequently include these boldfaced examples.

  • An added bonus is the free luncheon. A bonus is the free luncheon.
  • The bank’s ATM machine is out of order. The bank’s ATM is out or order.  (M=machine.)
  • A total of six cars were towed from the scene. Six cars were towed from the scene.
  • The auditorium is completely filled. The auditorium is filled.
  • He slowly descended down the stairs. He slowly descended the stairs. 
  • Her future plans are to work for a magazine. Her plans are to work for a magazine.
  • Invited guests included the mayor. Guests included the mayor.  (Otherwise they are uninvited or party crashers.) 
  • He drives a new foreign import. He drives a new import. 
  • The free gift arrived at the office. The gift arrived at the office.
  • The team set a new attendance record in 2019. The team set an attendance record in 2019.  (A record set is new by its nature.)
  • It’s the best book that I’ve read. It’s the best book I’ve read.  (That is frequently not needed.) 
  • The athletes volunteered at the food bank. Athletes volunteered at the food bank.  (The can often be dropped before plural nouns.)
  • Her truck is totally demolished. Her truck is demolished.  (AP cautions, “It is redundant to say totally demolished or totally destroyed.”    
  • At 12 noon she called the office. At noon she called the office.  (Neither noon nor midnight need 12.  And 6 a.m. or 6 p.m. don’t need this morning or this evening.)
  • The meeting is postponed until later. The meeting is postponed. 
  • Decorations are very unique. Decorations are unique.  (Unique needs no qualifier.)
  • He will attend whether or not she attends. He will attend whether she attends. 

I hope my free gift of these various wordiness examples of redundant items will help and assist you in the near future so you can entirely eliminate such past practices.     

Dr. Randy Hines teaches journalism at the University of North Georgia.  He’s co-author of “The Writer’s Toolbox: Blueprints for Successful Communicators”  (2019, Kendall Hunt).  He can be reached at randyhinesapr@yahoo.com.

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