Why Say It in Fewer Words?

By: Marilyn L. Davis

“Contrary to what some people seem to believe, simple writing is not the product of simple minds. A simple, unpretentious style has both grace and power. By not calling attention to itself, it allows the reader to focus on the message.”—Richard Lederer

Why Do People Write More Than Necessary?

long winded

My apologies to Richard Lederer, author of Anguished English for the following:

Bloated or long-winded writing tends to be extremely redundant or superfluous, unneeded, unnecessary, outdated and outmoded, full of disused or antiquated language; in other words, it is writing using words, phrases, and ideas that do not necessarily help to develop or in any way, shape, form, or convey the idea of the story, testimony, news report, recipe, article, blog or account that you are creating, writing or thinking about doing, regardless of how much you believe that these additional and extra words, phrases and explanations contained in a single sentence, paragraph or entire article will add value, meaning and a more complete, entertaining, informative reading experience for your readers, not to mention, the added benefit of words that will enhance, improve, augment, and boost the ability of a search engine to find your overly wordy article due to the fact that you have included the additional tags or keywords that you incorporated, fitted into or integrated meaningfully, purposefully, tenaciously and decisively in your sentence, paragraph or article.

Whew, we made it past the example. Everybody, please take a breath. 

What is remarkable to me is that the sentence is grammatically correct according to several grammar checkers, human, and app.

So what?

The point of writing is to give information to readers.  If they cannot understand what we wrote, correct grammar doesn’t matter, we failed as a writer, not the reader. Here are four poor reasons for writing more than necessary:

1. Word Count Theory

Some writers think that adding more words will help them meet a word count criteria. Valid point, however, if the phrases are just strung together to reach a number, what is the value of the article?

  • Instead, research your topic and add information, not just words.

2. Similar Word Theory

Some writers think that using a Thesaurus and writing similar words in each sentence will help them clarify their meaning. However, if you use the simplest word, you do not have to have other words define it. Readers are looking for information, not an indication of an extensive vocabulary, nor do they have time to look up a word.

  • Use a concise word, and  you can and be done with that passage.

3. More Words – More Understanding Theory

Some writers think that more words will help clarify their intent. Learn to write succinctly – use only the words needed to convey your information. However, don’t patronize them, or “write down” to them. Readers are probably smarter than some writers realize. They will leave if they believe that we are not respecting them.

  • Use as few words as possible to convey your point.

4. “Superior” Words – I am Smart Theory

Some writers think that they can show how intelligent they are with the fifty-cent words.What often happens is that the writer alienates readers and bores them with pretentious words. It is harder to write in a straightforward manner than to elaborate. A good writer can simplify and still inform or entertain. Know your readers and their vocabulary; then write for them.

  • If you need technical language, use it, otherwise, simple language works.

Everyday Language: Understood, Informative, Active

“A word about ‘plain English.’ The phrase certainly shouldn’t connote a boring style. Plain English is typically quite interesting to read. It’s robust and direct—the opposite of pretentious language. You achieve plain English when you use the simplest way of expressing an idea. You can still choose attention-grabbing words. But you’ll avoid fancy ones that have everyday replacements meaning precisely the same thing.” Bryan Garner, from Legal Writing in Plain English

The purpose of writing is to communicate information. Each of my niches has language that is specific for addiction and recovery as well as writing.  I may know what the jargon means, but I cannot be the only one who understands it, so I have to define the terminology or write in plain English.

If I am writing about addiction, there may be phrases or concepts that I have to explain to ensure that my readers understand the use of that word within the context of dependency. I might use several other similar words to convey the concept.

However, I will only do this once. 

Not out of laziness, lack of intelligence or knowledge about the subject, it is out of respect to the readers.

Reader Comments: The True Test of the Words

If I explained it tightly and directly the first time, then the reader is smart enough to understand the intent and context throughout the article.

However, if I get comments like the following, then I would have to write it more clearly or use other words for a reference:

• “I was unsure about…”
• “Can you clarify…?”
• “What did you mean by…?”
• “Can you explain…?”

glossary with clarificationI was fortunate when I wrote a 400,000 word recovery curriculum that my editor was not familiar with addiction terminology. Her lack of awareness about the context of certain words prompted her to ask questions for clarification.

Those conversations in turn prompted me to create the TIERS Glossary of Recovery Terms, which streamlines communication between the facilitator, participant and others in the group, creating a framework of recovery language.

Familiar language helps focus group time on the important issues of recovery when all participants understand vocabulary.

But, as an online writer, I do not have the luxury of asking another participant to “translate” or rephrase, nor do I include a glossary with a post.  I have to make each word count and the words must make sense to the reader.

I know if I’ve written concisely if the comments indicate a reader’s new awareness of the subject, or that my words gave them a greater understanding of the topic. Then I’ve done my job as a writer.

When Too Much is Too Much

While I can write about long-winded and pretentious writing, these examples by Rick Walston, exemplify the entire point of this article.

___
“An ornithological specimen in digital captivity is of greater value than double said specimen in dense foliage.”

•    Translation: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Medieval Proverb

“Branches of heavy foliage and jagged geological specimens may fracture my skeletal structure; however, inaccurate syntactical descriptions of my personage, heritage, or personality will never damage my psyche.

•    Translation: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” – English Idio

climbing-large-pile-of-paper

No, words may not hurt you, but too many or the wrong words can harm your views, revenues, reputation, or credibility.

Oh stop there; the readers get the point.

 

Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing

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5 comments

  1. Marilyn, Writing too many words is a regular thing for me. I think I just pour it all out just to get it on the page. The hard part is going back and cutting, however, since I always over write I have gotten better at cutting! Thanks for the reminder to check my words.

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    • Hi, Michelle. I’ve read all of your posts and not once were you guilty of being long-winded for the sake of adding words! When words add richness or nuance, they are there for a reason. Since both of us tend to include thoughts and feelings about the topic, we’ll have more words, but they are still a natural extension of how we write about any subject. Do not pare back; edits are okay, but your style, tone and process needs your words!

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      • I must say that over the years of learning I have figured out how to use words more judiciously. I used to have to cut everything I wrote in half!! But then I found that less is more…just like you said!

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  2. Thanks for the reminder of why we write. It’s nice if our words are inspiring and informative, but informative would seem to be a more useful outcome. I especially liked Point One above about word count – add information, not words. Thanks for another very practical and helpful post.

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    • Hi, Jon. Thank you for commenting and the kind words. I appreciate hearing that the advice is practical and helpful. I think every writer I’ve known wonders if our posts enable other writers to improve or if we’re just preaching to ourselves as a reminder. Glad this might help you.

      Like

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