One of the great things about having your own writing style is that you are able to discover unique methods of crafting sentences.
For some writers, their ideas are best expressed in long sentences that demonstrate a character’s state of mind or set a particular tone or mood. After all, there’s a long tradition of this throughout literature. James Joyce, Charles Dickens, and William Faulkner are all famous for their sprawling, musical sentences.
Faulkner even holds the world record for the longest sentence ever written, at 1,288 words. That’s the length of a lot of flash fiction pieces.
However…there’s a difference between writing long sentences because they truly serve what you’re writing and writing them just because they sound smart or cool. Long sentences can be effective for portraying the confusion or chaos in a scene. They can also reflect the unrest that may be unfolding in a character’s thoughts, or even a sense of mania.
But when used without deliberate intent, they just make your readers check out.
The truth is…no matter what your individual writing style is, it’s always best to err on the side of concise writing. Why? Because it makes your message more accessible to readers.
The first time someone told me this, I was a freshman in college. I was pretty egotistical back then and thought I knew a thing or two about writing.
My reaction was, “You want me to write shorter sentences? Are you kidding? I’m not going to dumb my writing down. If they’re confused, they need to come up to my level.” Years later, I’m horrified by self-absorbed that statement was. I wasn’t concerned about creating something that would inspire and impact my audience or be a gift to my readers. I was concerned about making myself look awesome.
And any time you become more concerned about being awesome than about giving readers what they genuinely need, you’ve lost your way. In my Inkling Weekly Minute newsletter last week (which you can sign up for here), I quoted Walt Disney:
This is the very essence of what your attitude toward your readers needs to be—and it’s why writing concisely is of the utmost importance. At this point you might be thinking, “Okay Kori, but my attitude isn’t the problem. My problem is that I suck at trimming down my writing.”
No worries. I sucked at trimming down my writing for a long time. In fact, it wasn’t until I started working as a copywriter that I really got somewhere with this skill. In copywriting, every word, every sentence, every punctuation mark matters. Time is of the essence. You have a message to get across to prospective customers, and if you can’t hold their attention, you’re done for.
Sometimes you only have one sentence to do it. Sometimes you only have a few words. The most important part of your job is to find the shortest, most powerful way to tell them what you have to say. With that being said, here are my top five tips for making your writing more concise, brought to you by not just my experience as a fiction writer, but as a writer in the public sphere.
Tip #1: Cut Adverbs
I’m not a total adverb hater. There are times when adverbs are the most effective way to communicate ideas. I’m sure I’ve used a few in this post already and that’s by design. Most of the time, though, adverbs aren’t necessary because they are just modifying what’s already there. If you’ve crafted a good sentence, you don’t need an adverb for the meaning to be clear. Like I said, there are exceptions, and it’s up to you as the author to judge those. But nine times out of ten, adverbs can get the axe.
Tip #2: Don’t say in five words what can easily be said in three. Or even one.
Ann Handley, author of one of my favorite books on writing, Everybody Writes, calls wordy language “word bloat.” There are many phrases that use an unnecessary amount of words to express simple ideas. Some examples she gives include:
· “Despite the fact that” can become “although”
· “When it comes to” can be “when” or “in”
· “Continues to be” can be revised as “remains”
· “In regard to” can be more easily stated as “about” or “regarding”
Are there phrases or even entire sentences that you can cut down to shorter phrases or single words? It takes practice to spot them, but when you eliminate the word bloat, your writing will be more readable.
Tip #3: Dissect your paragraphs
Long sentences that don’t earn their keep are bad enough, but in a world of soundbites and tweets, long paragraphs can be the kiss of death. I don’t know about you, but when I run into a paragraph that’s half a page long, I pretty much shut down. If the piece is engaging enough, I might keep going. But most of the time, I feel overwhelmed and either start skimming or give up altogether. There’s an easy solution to this: learn how paragraphs work and make sure yours are constructed properly. When I taught freshman comp, I always illustrated a paragraph as a sandwich. The introductory sentence is the first slice of bread, the middle sentences are the “meat,” and the concluding sentence is the second slice of bread. This illustration works best for academic or instructional writing, of course, but it has some application to creative writing, too. Each sentence in a paragraph must logically build on the next. The paragraph ends when the idea has been completed.
If you find that your paragraph already achieves this structure, great. Your next step is to move to the sentence level to ensure that every sentence indeed advances the paragraph’s main idea. Any rogue sentences must be evicted. The exception to this rule is dialogue, where a new paragraph must begin every time a different character speaks (see last week’s 10 Minute Writing time on my Instagram for more about the mechanics of dialogue).
Tip #4: Learn your writing tics
Every writer I’ve ever met has certain words they use as security blankets. While these words serve no purpose, they use them repeatedly like a bad habit, and it usually takes another editor to point it out. At one point in my professional career, my repeated word was “actually.” My boss at that job even told me that if I used “actually” one more time, he was going to reach through my Skype screen and strangle me.
Fortunately, it didn’t go that far, and with his help, I broke out of “actually” purgatory. Years later, my writing tic became “not only that.” This is one of those pointless, bloaty phrases I mentioned in Tip #2. “Not only that” was all over my writing and in every instance, it contributed nothing to the sentence except hot air. Pay attention to what words you use. Whether it’s a writing tic or not, anything that does not directly contribute to what you’re saying needs to go.
Tip #5: Replace passive voice with active voice
Passive voice means that an action in a sentence is being done to someone rather than them taking the action themselves.
Self-publishing is growing in popularity and many new authors are being published on Amazon.
Here’s the same sentence revised for active voice:
Self-publishing is growing in popularity and many new authors are publishing books on Amazon.
The key change is the elimination of the linking verb being. Taking this word out makes the sentence not only more concise, but livelier as well.
There are places where using the passive voice is appropriate…but most of the time, it’s not necessary. It’s an easy thing to change and just makes your sentence work better.
So, how about you? Which of these tips do you need the most help with? Comment below with your thoughts.
Also…don’t forget that you can always schedule a 100% complimentary Virtual Meetup with me to talk about your current project, writing questions, and hangups so you can get closer to reaching your full creative potential and inspiring and impacting audiences.
Click here to find out what you’ll gain from this no-strings-attached meeting and grab a slot on my calendar.