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A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
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Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
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Tidying Up

When your desk is so untidy that you can’t find your pen, you at least clear a space to rest your elbows, right? When your verbiage is fraught with extra bits, you need to do the same thing: tidy up so your readers can relax.

 

If I had control over how you learned to write, I’d have taught you to write simple sentences first, just a noun, a verb, and new noun or a simple adjective. Then I’d have taught you about descriptive words and prepositions, and allowed one or two per paragraph. But it’s too late to start from scratch; you can already write, so I’ve got to teach you how to pare down instead.

 

Adjectives are often the culprit for crowding otherwise clear prose. Adjectives can repeat the obvious—a tall skyscraper, a happy smile, a smelly fish. What other kind of friend might you have than a personal one? Or how about personal opinions? It either is your opinion or it isn’t, after all. These extra words slow your reader down trying to ferret out what you mean.

 

If you want to write clear prose, you need to pare each sentence to its essence. Let’s look at a sentence.

 

Other new BCL enhancements provide entirely new functionality that was strangely missing up till now and finally, a number of BCL enhancements fall into the camp of providing improved network support or network-oriented features.

 

This sentence is pretty hard to wade through. It says “new” twice, then says “enhancements” twice, and both “missing up till now, and “improved” to tell us again that there’s something new. What “camp” do new features “fall” into, anyway? Why would something that was missing in an early version, or its absence, be strange?

 

Look at this sentence, in comparison:

 

Other BCL enhancements provide network support or network-oriented features.

 

 

Look how simple that is. It doesn’t fluff up the word count, it’s a clear sentence, and it doesn’t waste any time getting to the point. Here are some other untidy sentences.

 

Now the simplified, tidied versions:

 

 

The steps I took to work this magic were simple. I read the sentence, then looked away and tried to discern what each was about—I paraphrased. Then I went back and tried to use the words already provided by the author. Every time I thought I was finished, I tried to find something else to cut until I couldn’t cut anything else.

 

It’s true that there’s less personality in my versions of these sentences, but readers typically want the information more than they want to be entertained. The Microsoft editing department says: Dare to be dull. I believe Thoreau said a thing or two about simplifying too. I’m all for it.