If you’ve ever given your writing to someone else for feedback, you may have gotten the advice to “tighten it up.” Most of us know such tightened up writing when we see it. It flows quickly and feels effortless to read. Every syllable counts. Nothing feels out of place. Tightening up our own prose feels like another story.
Efficient writing comes with lots of practice — and a few time-honored techniques. Here are a few to get you started.
Cut long sentences and paragraphs into two.
Unless you want a dense literary style, avoid long sentences whenever possible. They increase the reading level of your writing and give readers’ minds a chance to wander. A long sentence will often contain multiple ideas. If they’d be clearer on their own, split them up.
Likewise, long paragraphs make your writing appear dense and difficult to read. Shorter paragraphs provide more frequent rewards and a sense of progress. This will draw readers in and encourage them to read more.
Use a readability assessment tool.
Online readability assessment tools can help you determine whether you’re writing at an appropriate level for your audience. These tools use common indicators like the Flesch-Kincaid grade level to score your writing. Bloggers using WordPress can install plugins to evaluate their content automatically before they post. Readable.com offers some copy-and-paste writing assessments for free.
Writers might perceive some habits, like using interesting vocabulary or complex sentences, as personal strengths. Yet these can cause readers to stumble over your work or put it down before the end. Readability scores help you identify these problem areas and eliminate them.
Remove unnecessary commas.
When I got my book Order From Chaos back from the editor, the notes contained an excellent piece of advice: lose the commas.
Every comma pauses the reader’s flow. Most of us use too many. If the sentence still works without the comma, it’ll make your writing more difficult to read. Practice for your own editing by picking up a periodical with a higher reading level — The New Yorker provides a fine example — and looking for commas that don’t need to be there.
During my first critique in an undergrad creative writing workshop, my professor told me I overused the word “that.” I never forgot it. To this day, I make myself justify keeping that in a sentence.
Compare these two phrases:
- Everyone knew that he’d skipped class that day
- Everyone knew he’d skipped class that day
The word “that” adds nothing to the sentence except for word count. When it doubt, take it out.
Do it, don’t work toward it.
In a past life I worked briefly as an assistant grant writer. I spent most of that time trimming fluff from proposals by cutting phrases like “begin to,” “in order to,” and “work toward.”
These phrases usually weaken the sentence without adding any value. Rather than saying you’ll “work toward building a better future for our children,” why not promise to “build a better future for our children?” Use direct, assertive language whenever possible. Don’t leave room for ambiguity or hesitation unless it’s part of the sentence’s core meaning.
Never use two (or more) words where one will do.
We often overwrite in an attempt to increase variety or adopt a conversational tone. However, this increases word count — and reading difficulty — without adding value. Look how much more concise this phrase becomes by cutting out superfluous words:
Due to the fact that I missed last month’s meeting, I’d appreciate a quick recap.
Since I missed last month’s meeting, I’d appreciate a quick recap.
You needn’t drain all color from your writing or make all your sentences short. Simply make every word and phrase count. If it doesn’t pull its own weight, revise it out.