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I read an article recently about Justin Timberlake’s golf course. The article explained that Mr Timberlake had played the first round at a golf course he had bought and rennovated. The article went on to say: The Memphis native got the idea to buy the course from his dad in 2007.

Do you see any problems with the statement?

The Problem: Did Mr Timberlake buy the course from his dad? Or, did Mr Timberlake get the idea from his dad? The statement allows either interpretation. Most readers will figure this out, but you should never ask them to work that hard.

The Fix: Rearrange the sentence and it becomes:

The Memphis native got the idea from his dad to buy the course in 2007.

Alternatively, the sentence could read:

The Memphis native got the idea from his dad in 2007 to buy the course.

Can you avoid such writing problems?

There’s no easy trick for eliminating these types of writing problems. Perhaps the simplest defense against them is to read your work carefully… twice… out loud. If there is any ambiguity in meaning, rewrite the sentence to remove the ambiguity.

This sentence fails because it introduces Justin doing two things: getting the idea, and buying the golf course. It identifies only one party with whom Justin might have been involved. That should get you asking: which of Justin’s actions actually involved his dad? If it’s not difficult to interpret the sentence either way, assume that there is something wrong and rewrite to fix it.

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If you tell your readers how they’re going to feel about information your article or story presents, you have serious writing problems. Telling people how they’ll feel—or how they should feel—is a common writing device. You see it most often in marketing copy: You’re going to love this offer, or You’ll be amazed when you read this.

Sadly, writers of every color seem compelled to tell you how to feel. Never do it. It seriously weakens the effectiveness of your message.

How do I Feel?

For at least some people, the natural reaction to being told how they think, act, or feel, is to take exception. Consider the clichéd reaction of characters in so many emotional scenes when a consoling friend remarks, “I know just how you feel.” “No one knows how I feel,” comes the angry reply. A little bit of that angry reply lurks in many readers. Stir it up, and you turn them off.

One of the greatest transgressions of this fundamental rule is when you tell someone in advance how funny your story or joke is going to be. Making such a claim is throwing down a challenge. Your joke had better be funny, because your audience may want to prove you wrong.

The magazine Reader’s Digest did this for many months: On one page in each issue, they ran three jokes, the first labeled Funny, the next labeled Funnier, and the last labeled Funniest as if they thought readers were too stupid to recognize when a joke was funny. Of course, not one of the jokes Reader’s Digest ran in that section was funny; EVER. When you tell readers how they’re going to feel about something, you need to deliver information that’s significantly more emotionally charged than you would if you simply presented the information.

Let the Facts Amaze

With the first article I wrote as a magazine editor, I learned this important lesson from my boss: let the reader decide. I had written a lead that included a statement such as, Here’s a clever way to solve that problem.

My boss suggested that if the solution is clever, the reader will see that it is. Stating that the solution is clever sounds boastful… and if the reader thinks it’s stupid, then maybe you’re a stupid writer. Why read the words of an idiot?

If you want readers to be amazed, write something amazing. If you want readers to laugh, write something funny. If you want readers to think you’re clever, be clever. But don’t tell readers that they’re going to be amazed or amused or impressed… you have no control over their reactions and at least some will resist your claim; you’ll lose them before you even tell them what you want them to know.

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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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