Readable Writing Rule #4: Toss Extra Words Overboard

Readable Writing Rule #4How long should a sentence be?

No longer than it needs to be.

You don’t get brownie points for adding extra words.

In fact, getting rid of extra words will help make your sentences more understandable.

Take, for example, this sentence: “The presence in this plant of a significant degree of nuclear radiation has been judged to be of a rather low likelihood by the engineer interpreter of the tests.”

That can be slimmed down into the more readable: “The engineer who studied the tests determined there was an insignificant level of nuclear radiation in the plant.”

Twenty-nine words become 18, and are much easier to read.

Don’t take all day trying to say what you want to say

Just say it! Here are some more examples of overly-long sentences:

  • “For an athlete, training is an essential part of his success, for the athlete depends upon his body to produce whatever results are necessary in order to excel and win.” Instead, how about: “Training is vital to the athlete, who depends upon his body for success,” or “Athletic excellence depends on training,” or “Athletes know there can be no success without training.” Each of these three sample sentences is shorter, more to the point, and easier to read than the two sentences in the manuscript.
  • “What I will discuss are the five major contributing factors which help our bodies to become the way they are.” Instead, try: “Let’s examine the five major factors which shape the body.”
  • “Physical trauma is a very common contributor toward throwing the rotor assembly, its alignment and various constituents out of balance.” Instead, how about: “Physical trauma often throws the rotor assembly out of balance.”

They’re just in the way

Extra words and phrases are to writing what “ahs” and “ums” are to speaking – fillers, time-wasters, things you say or write when nothing else comes to mind. They also get in the way of the real meaning.

Here are some popular unnecessary extras, with suggested substitutions in parentheses:

  • What it is, is…   (It is.)
  • To be that of…   (To be)
  • What I will do is…   (I will)
  • There are noted to be…  (There are)
  • At this point in time…   (Now)
  • Make a recommendation that…  (Recommend)
  • Perform a study of…  (Study)
  • Of a difficult nature…  (Difficult)
  • As to whether…  (Whether)
  • A history of having had…  (A history of)
  • She is someone who… (She)

Blessed are the brief, for they shall be read!

Try tossing the extra words overboard in these sentences.

  1. This man has no history of having had committed a crime in the past.
  2. He developed a variety of symptoms, which have included cough, shortness of breath and dizziness.
  3. He has never had a surgery previous to this point.
  4. Symptoms which are of a diverse nature occur after exposure to chemicals.
  5. The impact caused the car in which he was riding in at the time to spin around.
  6. The nasal passages are not obstructed, and they are not red or inflamed.
  7. These are studies which are related to the war.
  8. The aim in the totality of the legal profession is to provide help to all of the people who are our clients.

Suggested answers:

  1. He does not have a criminal record.
  2. He developed a variety of symptoms, including cough, shortness of breath and dizziness.
  3. He has never had a surgery before. (Or, This is his first surgery.)
  4. Symptoms occur after exposure to various chemicals.
  5. The impact caused the car in which he was riding to spin around.
  6. The nasal passages are not obstructed, red or inflamed.
  7. These are war-related studies.
  8. Legal professionals aim to help their clients.

For more ways to make your writing sparkle, see “Readable Writing Review.”

I’m Barry Fox, a New York Times #1 bestselling ghostwriter. I help executives, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and top professionals create top-notch memoirs and business books. I can also guide you through the self-publishing process. Call me at 818-917-5362.

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