No matter what you write — and even if you’re not a writer at all — you should know how to craft concise and approachable non-fiction. As a fiction writer and mobile app developer, I engage my followers via blogs, email newsletters, and social media. These communications can feel like a distraction from the “real” work, but they allow more people to see and appreciate that work. I need to communicate effectively about what I do if I want to reach my goals.
From tweets to professional emails to an essay you submit to The New Yorker, every word counts. Every sentence is an opportunity for you to either engage readers or give their minds room to wander.
Here are seven ways to cut clunky sentences from your writing.
Obviously, of course, needless to say…
Many writers use these phrases for emphasis. They weaken your writing. If it goes without saying, don’t say it. Fiction writers can lean on the old cliche of show, don’t tell: if you have to tell readers it’s obvious, you need to beef up the surrounding descriptions.
Most people also find “obviously” or “it should go without saying” off-putting in real-life conversations. On the page, these phrases demonstrate a lack of faith in your readers and in your writing.
I think, I believe, I feel like…
Readers will assume your first-person essay, blog, or email communicates your own experiences and opinions. Stating it outright wastes precious word count.
Many of us also use variations on “I feel” to insulate ourselves from rebuttal or criticism. But readers want writing that feels vulnerable and risky. Consider the difference between these two sentences:
- I feel like most Americans should reduce their meat consumption.
- Most Americans consume an unsustainable amount of meat.
The first one goes down easy. It’s a statement about one person (the writer) and their opinion on the American diet. The second sentence confronts an entire society. It catches the reader’s eye and makes them want to read more.
In terms of…
Like “I think” and “I believe,” this deflates your message. It also moves the meat of your sentence to the end and stuffs the beginning with filler.
- In terms of your recent class participation, you’ve contributed some excellent ideas.
- You’ve contributed some excellent ideas to our recent class discussions.
The first sentence feeds the reader several unnecessary words and breaks the flow with a comma before it gets to the point. The second starts with the subject right away.
In order to…
You can usually remove “in order” without changing anything else in the sentence structure.
Look at these two sentences:
- In order to balance the budget, we had to cancel our premium cable channels.
- To balance the budget, we had to cancel our premium cable channels.
When you remove unnecessary words, your edits may also reveal a better option: We had to cancel our premium cable channels to balance the budget.
Using “of” to express possession.
While grammatically correct, it bloats your word count. The basement of your home clocks in at five words while Your home’s basement cuts it down to three.
Whether or not…
This habit also uses far more words than necessary. He wanted to know whether or not you can loan him the lawnmower and He wanted to know whether you can loan him the lawnmower convey exactly the same message. Never add extra words unless they earn their keep.
Be sure to, make sure to…
I’m guilty of this one all the time. Usually I want to strike a friendly or conversational tone. However, placing “be sure to” or “make sure to” in front of advice makes your prose overwordy. Most of the time you can cut it out without changing the tone.
A final note: read your work out loud.
Before I submitted the post you just read, I read it aloud to myself. I do this for all my writing, including my email newsletters and most of my longer Instagram captions. Never assume casual writing requires less care than a formal essay.
When you read aloud, pay attention to where you stumble. One stumble is a warning. If you go back to reread the sentence and you stumble again, you need to change it. Readers will stumble there, too.
While these may seem like tiny suggestions, they make a big difference. Concise writing takes far less effort to read. Almost as soon as the internet picked up speed in the early 2000s, the acronym “TL;DR” (too long; didn’t read) appeared on forums. Most of us have so much to read every day, we have no patience for clunky, overwordy sentences. Concise writing will make the difference between engaging your readers and losing them.