Saturday, August 14, 2010

Oh Those Superfluous Words

The articles I edit for Demand Studios have overall word counts and section word counts that vary according to format. However, the guidelines allow for exceeding the word limit when it is absolutely necessary. So--big surprise--just about every writer thinks her topic warrants more words.

I sympathize with the writers so knowledgeable in a certain field they can't decide what to leave out of 500 word essay. I have no sympathy for those who exceed the word count, because they can't write a simple, straightforward sentence. And while DS articles are informational, the same applies to all writing whether short fiction, essays, or even novels.

Take this example I ran across the other day:

The exam is divided into two separate parts. The first part is an oral exam, and the second part is a written exam.
Let me count the ways this can be simplified, starting with "two separate parts." That phrase is right up there with "exact same." Wouldn't we assume the parts are separate? Why include the word? 

Then there's "the exam is divided into." Not only does this include unnecessary words, it isn't precisely accurate unless the writers of the exam wrote it all as a written exam or all as an oral exam and then decided to divide it up into to two different formats.

Compare this:

The exam consists of two sections, one written and one oral. 
Even better, and probably more accurate:

Students must pass both a written and an oral exam for certification. 
That brings me to another superfluous phrase I come across over and over again--in order to. Many writers would automatically add those totally unnecessary words to that sentence.

In order to get their certification, students will need to pass an oral and written exam.  
Not only does that phrase add superfluous words, but it requires and awkward sentence structure using the verb "to get." That style of wording screams amateur. Not to mention the phrase, "you will need to." The word "will" is another space filler that comes up again and again. If the title is "How to Build a Dog House" one can assume the future tense, since the person reading it won't have built the dog house yet, so you don't have to say "you will need to buy 3-inch nails." Simply "Buy 3-inch nails" will do the job--literally and figuratively.

The same happens all the time in fiction.

Mary walked over to the sofa and sat down on it.
If Mary walked to the sofa (not "over" to the sofa), we can assume she didn't do it so she could sit on the chair. Better yet, eliminate the whole "walking" thing and just say, "Mary sat on the sofa."

While driving down the road, he saw a deer outside the window/through the window/outside the car.
If the deer were in the car, you'd need to tell us. If it's outside, we can figure that out on our own. We also don't need to know that the driver saw the deer through the window, either. Other than seeing it in his rear view mirror, we're going to assume he saw it through the window and not through the dashboard or the floor.

It's easy, as an editor, to spot these things and get snarky about it, but I know I've fallen prey to it in my own writing, and there it is much harder to spot. Sometimes it happens when I'm trying for a certain rhythm or cadence. "While driving down the road, he saw a deer," may seem too abrupt, so I'll add "through the window." Hopefully, on second look I'll see how useless that is and replace it with "grazing on the side of the road." But it may take another set of eyes to find it for me.

By far the best way to teach yourself to avoid unnecessary words is to discipline yourself to write short of the word count. If you are allowed 600 words, shoot for 550. It it's 5,000, shoot for four. Doing so will turn you into a brutal slicer--and improve your writing.

1 comment:

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