Discussion notes: attacking wordiness

May 13, 2013 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: editing.

Most of the editing students I have taught over the last three decades share this trait: they are reluctant to change anything in an editing exercise, even when it is obviously wrong. Getting them to where they will correct grammar, spelling and style errors in the first step. But to be good editors, of course, they must go far beyond this. They must learn to recognize and attack wordiness – the heart disease of good writing. Here are some lecture/discussion notes about what to tell editing students about wordiness – how to recognize the symptoms and cure the disease.

He gave $25,000 of his own money to charity.

At first glance, this sentence may seem ok – straightforward, grammatically correct, not too long, uses short words, expresses a fairly simply thought. But look again. It has too many words, way too many. The first culprit if easy to spot: the word “own.” Totally unnecessary. Of course, it’s his own money. He wouldn’t be giving anyone else’s money to charity, would he?

He gave $25,000 of his money to charity.

But wait, there’s more. By the same logic that we just used, we can also eliminate “of his money” from our revised sentence. Again, we can’t assume that he’s giving away somebody else’s money.

He gave $25,000 to charity.

What does the first sentence have that this third one does not? Nothing – but a bunch of words. Certainly no information is gone.

A good copyeditor should approach every sentence in this way, always asking, “What’s not necessary? What can I eliminate?” The goal of a good copyeditor in a professional setting is to give the reader as much information as efficiently as possible. All the words used in any writing should carry as much informational weight as possible. The copyeditor who can achieve this goal and shorten a piece of writing has done a good job.

But brevity isn’t the goal. It’s clarity. Making writing clear, so that it can be read easily and understood completely the first time, is what a copyeditor is all about. Sometimes that may mean making a sentence or a paragraph longer, and you should allow for that possibility. Most often, however, when you attack wordiness successfully, that’s what you will be doing.

(Remember, too, that accuracy is the number one goal of all journalists. You should never sacrifice accuracy to brevity. See the notes about achieving accuracy.)

Here are some things you should develop a sensitivity too – or let’s say these are pollens that you should develop an allergy to:

Redundancy. A redundancy is a set of words in which the idea or information is repeated. Some redundancies are easy to spot and eliminate. For instance:

Easter Sunday

Easter is always on Sunday, so the word “Sunday” doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. There are lots of redundancies floating around in the language (“component parts,” “exact same,” etc.), so carry a can of redundancide around with you and try to eliminate as many as possible. In fact, you should come to the next class with five redundancies that you have read or heard.

Sometimes redundancies may take a bit more consideration. The legal eagles around us are full of redundancies, and one of my favorites is “cease and desist.” Strictly speaking, I suppose, this is not a redundancy; there is a shade of difference between the meanings of these two words, enough so that they add something for the reader. But the copyeditor has to make a judgment about how good these words are, how much value they have. Are they worth using? Both of them? Or would the reader be just as well off with the word “stop”? The good copyeditor is always thinking about this stuff.

Repetition. The general principle is that no information in a news story should be repeated. You are probably safe in sticking with that principle. But you might be surprised by how many times the principle gets violated. Beginning reporters – especially those who have under-reported their stories – are bad about repeating information. The time and date that was in the lead paragraph often shows up in the last paragraph.

Taking a course from a paraphrase to a direct quotation is sometimes the occasion for repetition. For example:

She said the president had no plans to invade Iran at this time. “President Smith has said repeatedly that there are no plans on the table to launch an invasion of Iran,” she said.

The direct quotation does not tell us any more than the first sentence did. It should be eliminated, and another direct quotation – one that adds to the information we can give our readers – should be used.

Avoid repeating major words in a news story. Try to use synonyms.

Avoid repeating major or unique phrases.

And, above all, try to avoid repeating verbs, especially from one sentence to the next. Active, descriptive verbs carry more information weight than any other words. When you repeat a verb, even in a different paragraph, you usually haven’t told the reader much more than he or she already knew.


Note: Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute has written an excellent essay on “word territory.” Key words and phrases in your writing should be given space, or territory, and you do this by not repeating them.

Bureaucratese, or “official speak.” Reporters often fall into the trap of using the language or phrases of their sources, who may be officials of government agencies or businesses. Usually, this language is overblown or laden with excessive verbiage. In other words, it uses too many words, and it’s not plain English. Reporters might be forgiven for this sin (or they might not), but editors can never be forgiven for missing this stuff.

The following is from a state education site, describing what a journalism course or program should be in a high school:

The primary goal of any journalism program should be for students to improve oral and written communication skills. Many high school students seek opportunities to explore career possibilities in the media. Journalism programs should offer students many opportunities to excel in a variety of areas.

It’s full of “official speak.” Let’s try to rewrite it in plain English. What does it really say?

And watch out for jargon. What’s jargon? The language of a special group. Scientists have their jargon; so do sports writers and educators and jazz musicians. All God’s children got their jargon. As an editor, you shouldn’t let it slip into the writing.

Now the soapbox.

As a copyeditor, you should be offended by any misuse of the language. You should call for public humiliation of people who misuse the language by anything from grammatical errors to redundancies to bureaucratese. You should feel an affinity for the language and should be protective of it, just as you might be protective of a family member. And you should root out such violations of the language, mercilessly.

As an editor, your duty is to change what needs to be changed. Your duty is to help the reporter give the reader as much information as efficiently as possible.

And most reporters need help.

Check out the exercises on wordiness, redundancies and repetition in The Complete Editor.

Jim Stovall (Posted Feb. 10, 2005)

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