Monday, March 12, 2007

How to unstuff a sentence

Student-writers often believe that the secret of good writing is a reliance upon bigger and "better" words. Thus the haphazard thesaurus use that I wrote about last month. Another danger for student-writers involves the assumption that good writing is a matter of stuffy, ponderous sentences. Stuffy sentences might be explained by the need to make a required word-count, but I see such sentences even in writing assignments of only modest length. Most often, I think, these sentences originate in the mistaken idea that stuffiness is the mark of serious, mature writing.

A writer can begin to unstuff a sentence by looking closely at each of its elements and asking if it is needed. Here is an extreme example:

To begin, it is important to note that the theme of regret is an important theme in "The Road Not Taken," which was written by Robert Frost, and that evidence for it can be found throughout the entire poem.
"To begin": Like "to conclude," this phrase is an unnecessary, empty transition. If a point is coming early (or late) in an essay, trust that a reader can see that. Removing "To begin" involves no loss of meaning.

"It is important to note": Focusing on a point implies that the point is worth writing about, doesn't it? Removing these words too involves no loss of meaning. (As an undergraduate, I often wrote "It is interesting to note," until a professor drew a line through the words each time they appeared in an essay.)

"The theme of regret is an important theme": It's redundant to say that the theme is a theme. And is there any difference between "the theme of regret" and regret?

"'The Road Not Taken,' which was written by Robert Frost": Sentences with "which was written by" tend toward stuffiness. Here, the writer can refer to Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," a savings of four words.

"Evidence for it can be found": It's often smart to avoid the passive voice ("can be found"). But changing the verb form (to "the reader can find evidence") leaves a larger problem. If this theme is an important one in the poem, is it necessary to say that the poem contains evidence of it?

"Throughout the entire poem": There's no difference between "the entire poem" and "the poem," especially when the word "throughout" is already in play.

A writer might rethink this 39-word sentence in various ways:
Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" is, above all, about regret. Evidence that the speaker second-guesses his decision is abundant. (20 words)

A careful reading of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" shows that regret runs through the poem. (17 words)

Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" is a poem about regret. (11 words)

Regret colors every line of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." (11 words)
The point of unstuffing a sentence is not to simplify thought or eliminate nuances of meaning. The point is to express a thought, whatever its complexity, with clarity and concision — the real marks of good writing.

Related reading
All "How to improve writing" posts (via

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