Let’s take for granted that you write for the sake of your reader. You have a feeling, an image or an idea. You write, consciously or unconsciously, so that the reader will feel the feeling, see the image or duplicate the idea.
Words are plentiful and free, hence there is no penalty for giving your readers more of them and likewise no benefit from conserving them.
Or is there?
Correct answer: if you can achieve your aim with five words, there is no added benefit for anyone in doing it with 11 words.
Consider that you, as the writer, are Point A and the reader is Point B.
In writing, as in geometry, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Between you and your reader, the straightest line is the one that uses only as many words as is necessary. More often than not, when the writer does not take the shortest distance, the result is redundant or “overwritten” text.
(I can just hear some people reading this and saying “Oh, so we’re all supposed to write like Hemingway, in five-word sentences, eh?” That isn’t what I am suggesting but, then again, Hemingway is one of the most widely-read authors of the last 100 years, so….)
For some, the idea of the shortest distance makes perfect sense when traveling from St. Louis to Los Angeles but may not be as clear when applied to writing.
I will illustrate my point with examples taken from a recent editing job I did for a client. But first, a disclaimer: Despite some redundancy, this author displays a strong ability to tell a story, weave a plot and cause the reader to feel various emotions. So, while I am about to point out a few flaws, none of them subtracts from this writer’s innate talent.
1. “She ordered a cranberry juice; she was always the designated driver by default just in case.”
“Default” is a noun meaning “a preselected option that is adopted…when no other alternative is specified.” This usually refers to settings on a computer or other device or system but could also be applied to people (i.e., “The response of ‘whatever’ was his default to anything his mother suggested.”) In this author’s sentence, the phrase “by default” is used with the meaning of the noun. However, the phrase “by default” means something different than the noun “default.”
Additionally, “always” implies a default; there’s no need to state it.
Lastly, “in case” is also unnecessary: Sober individuals are the designated drivers because it is understood that the other passengers are going to drink. It’s not an “in case” scenario but a predetermined selection.
So, it’s only necessary to say “She ordered a cranberry juice; she was always the designated driver.”
2. “It dawned on him and he realized that he had never been involved with anyone worth the consideration.”
The expression “dawned on” means “become evident in the mind” or to understand. Hence, one only needs to say:
“It dawned on him that he had never been involved with anyone worth the consideration.”
3. In some cases, the writer may reiterate who is being written about, when the reader already knows:
“Getting ready for church was a pretty uneventful thing for her: simple dress, comfortable shoes, combed hair, a few accessories, perfume and out the door.”
In this section of the story, the reader already knows that main character is getting ready, so no need to mention “her.” Also, the writer has already named the “thing.” It’s “getting ready,” so no need to reiterate it:
“Getting ready for church was pretty uneventful: simple dress, comfortable shoes, combed hair, a few accessories, perfume and out the door.”
4. Another form of redundancy is the use of the same sentence structure over and over. In this case, the author starts nearly every sentence in this paragraph the same way:
“She stretched and groaned as she turned over on the sofa. Jerking back after almost tumbling onto the floor, she sat up on the edge of the sofa. She was stiff from the awkward position she had laid in. She felt in her pocket and retrieved her cell phone. 7:45, if she rushed she could still make it for the 8:30 service. She hurriedly dressed quickly into a brown wool sweater dress with brown boots and was ready in record time. She dashed her face with a few strokes of makeup to help minimize the tiredness under her eyes.”
It’s clear from the first sentence that “she” is the subject.
Using the same sentence structure over and over can create a static effect, similar to a melody with only one or two notes or a movie where the camera is still and none of the characters moves much. If you want to hold your readers’ attention, vary sentence structure:
“She stretched and groaned as she turned over on the sofa and, jerking back after almost tumbling onto the floor, sat up on the edge, stiff from the awkward position she had lain in. Reaching into her pocket, she retrieved her cell phone. 7:45. If she rushed she could still make the 8:30 service. After pulling on her brown wool sweater dress and brown boots, she dashed her face with a few strokes of make-up to help minimize the tiredness under her eyes.”
My suspicion is that redundancy and overwriting are the products of a desire to be perceived as “sophisticated” or from assuming that the reader can’t “connect the dots.” I will admit I have been guilty of this (particularly the latter) myself. Eliminating them and becoming a better writer comes with awareness and practice: Write, write and write some more but then go back and re-read and re-write. I suspect that you will usually find things such as the above examples and perhaps others.
If you don’t care to review and rewrite, you can always hire a freelance copy editor (like me) to do that.
Here are some testimonials from my clients.
# # #
Steve Wagner is a Los Angeles-based freelance copywriter and editor whose clients include American Songwriter magazine, The Hard Truth magazine, the public relations firm MWPR, in Burbank, CA and the diversity consulting organization Global Collaborations, Inc., in Houston, TX. If you are seeking a professional editor, contact him at swagner (at) writer-editor-etc (dot) com and he will be happy to talk with you about your project.