Diet tips for overweight prose

By | January 22, 2016

Like chubby kids fed a steady diet of junk food, our first-draft sentences are often overweight, bloated, padded, curvy instead of straight, mushy instead of muscular.

So what do we about this plague of overweight prose? We slim it down.

How do we do this? We cut ruthlessly.

If you’re mystified by this process, stay with me as I apply the Gauer diet treatment to a bloated paragraph of 82 words and bring it down to a trim and slim 34 words.

Sadly, every day across North America, thousands, possibly millions of paragraphs like this one emerge from first drafts:

A major company maintains a large personnel database that it basically makes use of for many kinds of employee-related applications such as payroll and benefits. The company now has some plans to extend the database significantly to include current photographs of employees and use the photographs as the basis for a very modern security system. The system is specifically designed to protect secure areas of the company’s building from access by any people who really do not have authorization to be there. (82 words)

It’s not the world’s worst paragraph. The meaning is clear and the writing is grammatically correct. But like most first drafts, it’s filled with unnecessary words that are taking up space and not accomplishing very much.

Let’s highlight some of those words:

A major company maintains a large personnel database that it basically makes use of for many kinds of employee-related applications such as payroll and benefits. The company now has some plans to extend the database significantly to include current photographs of employees and use the photographs as the basis for a very modern security system. The system is specifically designed to protect secure areas of the company’s building from access by any people who really do not have authorization to be there. (82 words)

There are at least three kinds of bloat to attack in this paragraph: intensifying words like “basically”, “significantly”, “very”, “really”, “some” and “any” which can usually be cut without affecting meaning; expressions like “makes use of” and “has some plans” which can be replaced by a single word (i.e., “uses” and “plans” respectively); and redundancies (isn’t a personnel database by definition employee-related?).

Here’s a second draft:

A major company maintains a large personnel database that it uses for many employee-related applications such as payroll and benefits. The company plans to extend the database to include current photographs of employees and use the photographs as the basis for a modern security system. The system is designed to protect secure areas of the company’s building from access by people who do not have authorization be there. (68 words).

Let’s highlight some more words we can cut:

A major company maintains a large personnel database that it uses for many employee-related application such as payroll and benefits. The company plans to extend the database to include current photographs of employees and use the photographs as the basis for a modern security system. The system is designed to protect secure areas of the company’s building from access by people who do not have authorization be there. (68 words).

Many adjectives we use are either redundant or unnecessary. Think carefully before using words like “major”, “modern”, “large”, “current”, “up to date”. Aren’t most databases large? Why would the database have old, out-of-date photos instead of current ones? Why describe the security system as “modern”? Would you deliberately build an old-fashioned one? And surely there’s a shorter way to phrase the last part of the last sentence.

Round three:

A company maintains a personnel database that it uses for employee-related applications such as payroll and benefits. The company plans to extend the database to include photographs of employees and use the photographs as the basis for a security system. The system is designed to protect certain areas of the building from unauthorized access. (54 words)

Much better than the first draft. We’ve cut 28 words (about a third). We could keep going and with some re-writing cut it even more if we had the time and the will power:

A company plans to extend its personnel database to include employee photographs. The company wants to use the photographs in a security system that will protect certain areas of the building from authorized access. (34 words)

When I wrote in an earlier post that brevity is one of my writing principles, this is what I meant. Rewriting should almost always reduce the length of your message, whether it’s an email, a report, or a marketing brochure. If you need to add ideas in a second or third draft, fine, go right ahead. But always remember my opening line about chubby kids and keep your writing tight, lean and concise. Your readers will thank you.

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