Dear Master’s student,
Last week’s note focused on conceptual tips for eliminating wordiness; this week we’ll get into the nitty-gritty with practical considerations.
There are a few relatively simple things to check when you’re looking to eliminate words.
- The unneeded preposition. We sometimes include prepositions (words like by, on, between, of, for, in, from, at, to, up) that don’t actually contribute additional meaning or clarity to a sentence. For example, consider the two sentences below.
The teacher awarded the student with a gold star.
The teacher awarded the student a gold star.
I know this one word may not seem like it’s turning a fine sentence into a turgid monstrosity, but over the course of a five- or six- page paper, those prepositions start to add up. When you come across a preposition during your self-editing, see whether your sentence maintains its meaning and grammatical correctness without it. If you can cut the preposition, cut it!
- Redundancy. One type of redundancy emerges when a writer includes two words (usually adjectives, sometimes verbs) that have the same meaning. For example,
After reviewing the report, my first initial impression was that…
Here, “first” and “initial” are synonymous, so only one of them is needed to convey the idea of first-ness.
A sentence can also have redundancy if a modifier has the same meaning as the word it modifies. Consider the phrase “the dead corpse.” By definition, a corpse is a dead body, so it’s completely unnecessary to use the modifier “dead” in front of it. (There is, after all, no such thing as a “living corpse.”) Or consider this sentence:
The aforementioned student smiled happily as she received the gold star.
Most smiling is happy (although one can smile mischievously or disingenuously), and from the context of the sentence, a reader will understand that this particular smile is a happy one. So the adverb happily is redundant.
- The simple thought made to sound complicated. We’re all guilty of wanting to make our 99¢ idea sound like a million dollar winner—but part of academic integrity is presenting our thoughts clearly and honestly. Look at the two examples below.
I’m a little skeptical, and I felt like it was one of those disbelieving times.
I’m a little skeptical, and my doubt reemerged.
In the first version, the underlined portion is 10 words long; in the second version, it’s three words. That’s a reduction of 70%! There’s not truly any additional meaning conveyed in those seven words, so it’s best that they’re cut. It’s difficult at first, but as you practice, you’ll become more skilled and ruthless at trimming the fat from your prose.