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Many people see vocabulary as one of their top writing problems. If you’re such a person, you may work with a thesaurus open, ready to dig out the perfect word to make a point or complete a description. Here’s a surprising truth: most vocabulary-related writing problems arise from over-inflated vocabularies rather than from light vocabularies.

For Whom are you Writing?

Most readers won’t notice when your writing contains only small, simple words. In fact, they’ll read quickly and understand you easily. However, when you toss in a lollapalooza (a very unusual word), many readers stumble. If knowing the meaning of that lollapalooza is necessary to understand the sentence, paragraph, or article, you could immediately lose readers who don’t know the word. Using many lollapaloozas in a single article could make the article unreadable.

Some disciplines, among them academia, medicine, and law, have come to equate big honking words with prestige. If you’re writing for people in these disciplines, you may need a big vocabulary to be taken seriously. But for most writing your goal should be to include and inform rather than to feed the egos of exclusive cliques. In other words: put away the thesaurus.

Simple is Better

I worked for several years as an editor at a magazine for computer enthusiasts. We saw our audience as middle and upper managers who relied heavily on desktop software. Still, we strove to produce articles that were no more sophisticated than what an eighth grader might produce.

That should be your goal: write well, but write simply. Don’t deliberately use big words because they seem authoritative or sophisticated. Don’t go in search of big words when you already know smaller ones that will do the job. When your readers have to work hard to understand your words, they may completely miss your message.

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Nonsense Expressions

Here’s a quick look at some silly writing problems. There are many phrases that people abuse in both conversation and in writing. Maybe you use these phrases in your writing. If you do, stop! When you use them, you sound stupid to some readers, you lose credibility, and you may drive people away. When you don’t use these phrases, no one misses them.

Gather Together

Do you say gather together? For example:Gather everyone together in conference room B.” Sounds familiar, no? I defy you to explain: how can you gather anything other than together? The statement Gather everyone in conference room B is clear. Get everyone together is also clear. Gather everyone together is redundant. Stop saying it.

Connect Together

Because it’s so similar to gather together, You’ve probably already seen the silliness in this expression: Use the striped cable to connect the devices together. You can’t connect the devices apart… so don’t waste the word together. Say Use the striped cable to connect the devices.

Close Proximity

This phrase must have arisen one day when someone wanted to sound authoritative: We have determined that the perpetrator lives in close proximity to the shopping district. The word proximity means closeness, so that authoritative genius actually said, We have determined that the perpetrator lives in close closeness to the shopping district. The sentence is silly and it’s needlessly stuffy; I’d rewrite it to say The perpetrator lives near the shopping district. If you never again use the word proximity, your writing will be better for it. But if you must use proximity, never use it in the phrase close proximity.

Successfully Complete

Consider the meaning of this statement: Larry Ainge successfully completed the tasks we assigned him. If Larry completed the tasks, then he must have been successful. Can you claim that Larry unsuccessfully completed a task? Logically, if he was unsuccessful, he didn’t complete it. Simplify your writing. Larry completed the tasks we assigned him. Or, Larry succeeded with the tasks we assigned him.

Could Care Less

Please eliminate this expression from your writing and your speech. If you mean that you don’t care even a little bit, then you couldn’t care less. The statement I could care less clearly means that you care—and it provides little sense of how much. When you say I could care less, you sound ignorant—as though you don’t know how meaningless the expression is; people might assume the ignorance extends to other topics besides how much you care.

Have You Done This Before?

When you ask someone, Have you seen this movie before? you’re encouraging them to wonder: When else could I have seen the movie? If you saw the movie, you saw it before. Toss before from sentences that already say it: Have you seen this movie? or I’ve never been here.

Compare with Each Other

Here’s a sentence that sounds innocent—and it’s even forgivable: Compare the two financial plans with each other. Were you to say Compare the two financial plans, nearly every reader would understand they should compare the plans to each other. The statement introduces risk that a rare individual might wonder: Compare the plans with what? That’s a risk you should take to improve your writing.

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Is verbosity among your writing problems? It may be, and you don’t even know it. Why? Because conversation is usually loaded with unnecessary words… and writers typically create “conversational” prose. (If your prose doesn’t sound conversational, visit Writing Problems Explained often; we’ll keep working on it.)

Verbosity means wordiness. Wordy writing is bad writing. A reader faced with too many words may give up. The Internet reinforces this: if the point you’re making doesn’t fit on one screen, you may lose your reader; scrolling is too much trouble.

Edit for Brevity

Good writers and even very bad editors focus on brevity. One goal of a magazine or newspaper editor is to cut as much from an article as possible without losing the story’s meaning or the author’s voice. A succinct writer decreases the editor’s workload and sees fewer changes from final draft to published copy.

When you create web content, cut your own words. Be brutal: chop the chaff from every sentence. Chuck sentences—and even paragraphs—that don’t contribute to your main point. Here are some strategies to help:

Don’t Be Chatty

Unless you’ve written fiction or a journal entry, get to the point. Comments about your dog or your niece add character, but inject too many of them and you’ll distract your readers to annoyance.

Don’t Try to Sound Authoritative

Most people trying to sound authoritative sound stiff; they say too much and they load what they say with big words. Consider the spokesperson for a police investigation:

“We have absolutely no information at this time, but we’ll make a formal announcement the moment there’s a change in the situation.”

Without the swagger, the spokesperson might have said:

“We don’t know, but we’ll tell you when we do.”

Sound authoritative by being authoritative, but don’t try to sound authoritative.

Scrutinize Your Wording

As you write a sentence, ask yourself: “Can I say this more efficiently?” Here are examples of changes I made as I wrote this article:

I wrote: A goal of a magazine or newspaper editor reworking an article is to cut out as much text as possible without losing the meaning of the story or the voice of the author.

And edited to: One goal of a magazine or newspaper editor is to cut as much from an article as possible without losing the story’s meaning or the author’s voice.

I wrote: Of course, when you create web content, if falls to you to cut your own words.

And edited to: When you create web content, cut your own words.

I wrote: You add character by throwing in comments about your dog or your niece, but…

And edited to: Comments about your dog or your niece add character, but…

I wrote: Here are examples of changes I made on-the-fly as I wrote sentences in earlier paragraphs of this article:

And edited to: Here are examples of changes I made as I wrote this article:

Do your readers the favor of editing your work before you make it public on the web.

Eliminate Common Verbosity

There may be hundreds of popular turns-of-phrase that employ unnecessary words. You probably use them in conversation and in your writing. Here are examples:

Allows you tonever say this. Replace it with Lets you.

Now and Currently—very overused words. In the opening of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, you can see the folly of the word now on a sign that reads You are now in Bedford Falls. A sign reading, You are in Bedford Falls would be just as clear, and would cost less to make. A meteorologist who announces that the temperature is currently 72 degrees, wastes three syllables. You’d understand perfectly the announcement, The temperature is 72 degrees.

Absolutely certain—unnecessary overstatement. If you’re certain, then your knowledge is absolute; you can’t be more certain than certain.

At this time or At this point or the nauseating At this point in timestop using these phrases! Instead, use the word now. It’s a good word.

Practice to Reduce Writing Problems

Here are several verbose phrases that I lifted from various blogs. Rewrite them using fewer words. My rewrites follow the list:

  1. Take into consideration that…
  2. If you think that having bluebirds in your yard is a near-impossible idea…
  3. If you want to save on time…
  4. This is over and above other ideas you might consider…
  5. You may want to put a gasket…
  6. As it stands right now…
  7. Overall, the ultimate goal of Jack Plunket’s art is to show the world from the point of view that Plunket’s dog saw it.

My rewrites:

  1. Consider that…
  2. If you think you can’t have bluebirds in your yard…
  3. To save time… (Also: Save time by…)
  4. Also consider…
  5. Put a gasket…
  6. As it stands…
  7. Jack Plunket’s art shows the world from his dog’s point of view.

Keep practicing. Be vigilant. Verbosity should not be one of your writing problems.

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