11 Tips to Clean Up Your Dirty, Wordy Writing

11 Tips to Clean Up Your Dirty, Wordy Writing

Get out the pruning shears: a big part of good writing is good editing. And a surefire way to give your writing a confidence boost is to eliminate words that weigh down your writing and make you sound uncertain.

We call these weasel words. Like weasels, they’re not necessarily bad on their own. In fact, they’re kind of cute. But weasels are known for escaping situations (ever heard of someone “weaseling out” of something?). Plus, if you’re a rabbit, they’re deadly.

Weasel words won’t kill you (or rabbits). But you’ll still be safer if you avoid them. So give your writing a confidence boost with these tips for cleaning up your writing.

Get rid of these dirty habits

1 Weasel words Specifically, weasel words are qualifiers that might make you sound sort of like you’re not sure of yourself. Or maybe like you’re trying to create a little wiggle room. For example:

  • Like
  • Sort of, kind of
  • Maybe, perhaps
  • Might, can

Let’s try that again. Weasel words are qualifiers that make you sound unsure of yourself, like you’re trying to create wiggle room.

Don’t get us wrong: in some cases, you need these words. But if you want to convey an idea or make an argument, remove words that make your readers think of slimy politicians trying to avoid stating something directly. Maybe it can make a difference.

No, really: it makes a difference.

2 Adverbs Like weasel words, adverbs aren’t evil on their own. They’re like seasoning: a little goes a long way. Who wants pasta with more pepper on it than cheese?

Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing:

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

We’re not going to bring devils and brimstone into the picture, but we do strongly recommend that you seriously think about taking out the adverbs, unless you actually need to significantly modify an idea.

Oh look, it happened again. Here’s that sentence without the padding: we recommend taking out the adverbs unless you need to modify an idea. Stronger, right?

Here are some of the most common do-nothings in the adverb world:

  • Actually
  • Basically
  • Currently
  • Presently
  • Really
  • Suddenly
  • Very
  • Seriously

When you catch yourself using one of those words, read the sentence to yourself without it. If it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence in a significant way, axe it.

3 “There is” and “there are”

There is nothing more boring than a sentence that starts with “there is.” In other words, sentences that start with “there is” are boring. In other words, write interesting sentences. Constructions that start with words like “it,” “here,” or “there,” followed by a form of the verb “to be” fall into the category of empty filler words.

Instead, try to start with yourself or a subject—or better yet, a verb—to focus on the action and the idea. After all, there are so many interesting writing styles out there. Er, that is, emulate interesting writing styles to keep your prose powerful.

Replace these signs of weakness

1 Excessive Punctuation

Sure: sometimes a colon, semicolon, or other fancy punctuation—dashes, for example—can help you get a point across; it’s elegant and convincing.

But often, shorter sentences are better. If your writing feels weighed down by long sentences crammed with lots of punctuation, try taking out some of the extras in favor of sentences that are short and sweet.

2 Too many negatives

Yes, that goes for your mood, but it also goes for your writing. If you’re finding lots of instances of “shouldn’t,” “can’t,” “don’t,” and other variations of “not” in your writing, try to diversify by picking a verb that doesn’t require the word “not.”

For example:

You shouldn’t use negatives in your writing.

Vs.

Use positive words in your writing.

Now there’s a boost to your writing style and your mood.

3 Excessively fancy words

Fancy words are fun. They make us feel smart. They remind us that we took the SAT, and despite the tribulations of the egregious experience, passed with equanimity and aplomb.

It’s a bit much. Sure, a 50-cent word here and there can help you convey ideas precisely—for example, “with equanimity” is a lot more specific than “doing a good job and staying calm.” But don’t just toss in the big guys to make yourself sound smart. Your writing will be clearer and more powerful if you use them sparingly. After all, you can have too much of a good thing.

4 The word “thing”

Really, just destroy that thing.

Pretty much every time you use the word “thing,” you could pick another word that is more specific and precise.

Take these examples:

I’m trying to strengthen my writing with things that sound better to an audience.

Vs.

I’m trying to strengthen my writing by gearing my style toward a target audience.

See? Rewriting can be a powerful thing.

Follow these key rules

1 Make verbs stronger

In other words, strengthen your verbs. That just about covers it.

2 Think about icebergs

You know, the tip of the iceberg. It’s an idiom that means a small or visible part of a much bigger issue, and it’s how Ernest Hemingway thought about writing as a whole. Here’s the idea in his words:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg [sic] is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

The metaphor: the dignity of writing is also due to slashing what you want to say down to what you need to say. Maybe one-eighth sounds extreme, but even if you have a different fraction, the rule stands: show, don’t tell, and if you’re showing, show it in a shorter way. Whether you’re writing fiction, nonfiction, or something that defies definition, it’s a good rule of thumb.

3 Listen to George Orwell

In an essay called “Politics and the English Language,” he defined six rules of writing. If they worked for the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, they may just work for you. Here they are now:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

There you have it: keep your writing simple, brief, active, free of clichés, and to the point.

But Orwell gives you a little bit of leeway: if something sounds “outright barbarous” (in simpler terms more in line with his own rules: brutal, uncivilized, or bad), you might just have permission to break these rules. Which leads us to our final guideline:

4 Use your own best judgment

These rules will help you maintain clean, clear prose that argues, convinces, or portrays efficiently and powerfully. But there are always exceptions: sometimes a grandiloquent word best serves your purposes, or the word “thing” really comes in handy. You don’t have to treat these rules like a religion, but if you keep them in mind when you’re polishing your writing, you’re likely to have a more powerful product. Even the weasels can’t argue with that.

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Comments
  • Waris Mazhar

    Nice post!

  • Molly Isles

    You used a split infinitive in your example
    but did not mention this in the correction

    • Charlotte Brock

      I often see split infinitives in writing and also hear them in speech, on radio and TV. Do you think the split infinitive has now become acceptable?

      • Molly Isles

        In time, I guess ,all becomes acceptable but Grammarly did not pick up on it.
        Smart phone does not help esp. with my finger

  • Peter Eedy

    Great article — and some advice back for George Orwell (if he is listening somewhere): “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” — delete the unnecessary ‘always’, George!

    • Philip Gaut

      How about “If a word can be cut out, cut it out.”?

      • Peter Eedy

        Nice one Philip — you’ve inspired me — how about this one for George then: “Delete unnecessary words”? Or does that lose too much context?

        • Philip Gaut

          Well Peter, you’ve reduced the word-count, but at the cost of introducing a five-syllable word. For me, the final “cut it out” has an impact that makes it worth keeping. On further thought, “if possible, cut it out.” would encompass not only words but also whole phrases and sentences. Even better?

          • NoNonsense11

            If you can cut a word, do so.

          • Philip Gaut

            Cut if you can.

    • Ken Johnson

      George Orwell was making a point specifically about political writing, for example, political polemic or the sort of tripe that the political party gramophones play every week on Question Time. The rules exist to make sure that if you are writing nonsense, it is apparent even to yourself that it is nonsense. It is worth reading the original essay in full and understanding George Orwell’s rules in their context.

  • Jeff Ihnen

    Terrific stuff. I will forward this with highlights to my proposal writing team.

  • Philip Gaut

    My tip: do a word-count, then set yourself the challenge of reducing it by 10%. Then, if you dare, repeat.

  • Herren Thomas D’souza

    Awesome article, I often make some mistakes given above! Haha, from now on my writing skills has been geared up to some level. Seriously helpful!

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