3 Tools to Get the Sharper Prose You’ve Always Wanted

A student recently asked me how to cut unnecessary words–and what the hell “unnecessary” even means. Good question. One that was probably inspired by comments her professor had scribbled over her paper: Redundant. Extra words. Repetitive.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen exactly those comments from professors who seem to assume their students will intuitively know what all that nonsense even means. But no one’s born with this knowledge. We have to work for it. So if you’re a student or just a writer who’d like sharper prose, I’ve got three tips to help: 1) Learn to recognize “empty” words we use out of habit, 2) Learn to use adjectives or adverbs wisely, and 3) Use clear, direct sentence structures.

1. Cut Empty Words

In our everyday interactions, we use lots of unnecessary words. We repeat ourselves, use words that mean the same thing, and choose words for emphasis that in and of themselves mean nothing (like “very” or “pretty” before “good”). When writing for a page or word count, it’s especially tempting to use words we don’t need. Students have even confessed they believe that the more words they use, the smarter they’ll sound!

But when we sit down to pump out some good prose, we have to break all these habits.

My last year in college, my human rights professor handed out a list of forbidden words. These words included: very, rather, kind of, some, many, a lot, often, frequently essentially, obviously, clearly. If you think about it, these words are empty. They don’t add anything. An idea that is obvious or clear to you may not be so for your readers. And “rather good” is still “good.” He had a law degree and believed that we should either say exactly what we meant (“10,000 international students” instead of “many international students” or just cut modifiers that left readers guessing).

The Economist, a highly respected magazine, offers similar advice with lots of examples of how to cut unnecessary “empty” words here.

2) Control Your Adjectives and Adverbs

Unnecessary words tend to be adjectives or adverbs (“The full, large, white, round moon” or “He ran quickly”). A better writer would have said, “The full moon” or “He sprinted.” So if you want to be a better writer, too, it’s a good idea to practice choosing the perfect verb, so you don’t have to add an adverb. And choose the perfect noun, so you don’t have to add a bunch of adjectives.

If you’re feeling rusty about the difference between adjectives and adverbs, here’s a great refresher.

3) Use Direct, Simple Sentence Structures

Again, lots of us learn somewhere that the more complicated the sentence, the smarter we sound. This isn’t true. The simpler our sentences, the more easily readers can understand our beautiful, complex ideas.

Ernest Hemingway is a master of clear, direct sentences:

“The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot.”

I’m sure you noticed he’s already practicing Rules 1 and 2. Hemingway avoids repetition and empty words. He inserts each word like a tile in a mosaic for a specific purpose, with a specific meaning behind it. He also uses only eight adjectives and one adverb (very).

But one of the most important things Hemingway does is that he begins most of his sentences with the noun—the subject—that the sentence is about (the hills, the American and the girl, it). If you pick out which sentences you found slightly confusing, I’d bet my student loans they were the sentences containing “there was.” Many professors frown over their eyeglasses at this sentence structure because it’s not immediately clear what the sentence is about; it also adds extra words (“there are” doesn’t convey an idea). So finally, another good way to cut unnecessary words is to get straight to the point with the first noun.

For example, instead of saying, “There were so many soldiers that landed on that beach in Normandy on D-Day that it blew my mind,” try this:

“Over 150,000 soldiers landed on Normandy beaches on D-Day.”

And anyone who’d like a review of the four basic sentence structures can click here.

Writers develop sharp writing, without unnecessary words, over decades, even an entire career. But with these three steps—cutting empty words, controlling your adjectives and adverbs, and writing clear sentence structures beginning with your subject—you’ll get on the right track in no time.

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