5 Simple Tricks to Tighten Your Writing
I used to cringe whenever I deleted words I had written -- words that took energy to write, words I debated about using, and words I connected with emotionally. Now, I cheerfully delete them, and I even see it as a challenge to remove the unnecessary ones from my writing. Why? Because I’ve learned the mission of good writing is clarity, and if there’s anything extra that gets in the reader’s way, I want it gone.
It’s easier to edit your writing when you remember its mission.
Here are 5 tricks to tighten up your writing and remove what’s unnecessary.
Get straight to the point.
It’s tempting to begin your writing with a long story leading up to what you’re really trying to say. You start by setting the scene and trying to draw your reader in, and suddenly the sixth grade student inside of you hears your writing teacher’s voice and you feel compelled to use sensory imagery. Unless your name is Pat Conroy and you’re describing the South Carolina lowcountry, stop. Readers -- especially nonfiction readers -- want to know where you’re headed within the first few (short) paragraphs. They don’t want extra information; they want what will be useful in their lives. Start by telling them where you’re headed, and if they want to go there with you, they’ll keep reading.
Search for filler.
When writing, we often use extra words when we aren’t sure of the best words. We subconsciously think that using more words will explain our thoughts better, so we add unnecessary adjectives and descriptive phrases. These filler words prevent clarity. After writing your first draft, make it your goal to cut your word count by 25%. Yes, that sounds like a lot. When you start, this will be difficult, but as you become more ruthless in your mission to be an effective writer, you will delight in deleting!
Stop using qualifiers.
Listen -- you are the authority on the topic of your writing. It may feel presumptuous to see yourself that way, but if you are the writer, you are the expert. To that end, stop using phrases like “I think” or “I know” or “In my opinion.” Here’s a very practical example. Just now, I originally wrote, “I know it may feel presumptuous” for the second sentence of this paragraph. The words “I know” don’t need to be there. It’s a statement of fact -- “it may feel presumptuous” -- so I went back and deleted those words. When I taught 9th grade English, my students were not allowed to use any of those three phrases. Tell yourself you aren’t either.
Be cautious using the word “that.”
In most cases, you simply don’t need it. Consider these sentences: “I think you’re smart” and “I think that you’re smart.” Delete “that” when you can and tighten your writing. (There are times when, grammatically you need it, as in the sentence “I learned that although kids would be allowed, I shouldn’t expect babysitting.”) In most cases, though, you can use your own ear to determine if it’s needed or not.
Stop using exclamation marks!
I never knew I could despise punctuation, but it turns out I can! When people use exclamation marks repeatedly, it becomes annoying! It sounds like they are shouting at you! (Think about how you read the previous sentences in your head. All the extra emotion is exhausting as a reader, isn’t it?) Make it a practice to virtually eliminate exclamation marks from your writing. Your words should portray strong emotion even without the punctuation.
Writing well is a discipline, and discipline includes doing what is difficult. Sure, self-editing and practicing self-control with our writing habits is hard, but when clarity is the goal, we do what it takes. Be ruthless, writers! Your readers need you to be.
Not sure if your writing is the best it can be? Contact us and we’ll hook you up with our editor extraordinaire, Jennie. She’ll help you tighten up your writing, clarify your message, and put your best work out in the world—all while cheering you on as you do the hard work of being a writer.