Does your writing have that bloated, overstuffed feeling? Do you have the habit of packing in more words than needed for clear communication? Are your readers easily fatigued by your writing? Do you send out your documents without first subjecting them to rigorous and strenuous editing? Do you run out of breath when reading aloud?
If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, you may have “fat writing.” It’s time to put your writing on a diet and exercise program. Most fat writing can be solved through “diet and exercise.” Dieting refers to removing unnecessary text. Exercise refers to revising for direct and clear communication.
Characteristics of Fat Writing
Redundant writing communicates the same information more than once, whether using words that mean the same thing or communicating the same concept in multiple ways.
Example redundant words: “The office was large and roomy.”
Example redundant concepts: “The company engaged in conservative spending. Company officers introduced a plan to achieve equal results with fewer expenditure.”
Prevention: Use an outline; keep common topics together; say it once well; remove generalities and focus on specifics.
After diet and exercise: “The office was roomy.” “Company officers introduced a plan to achieve equal results with fewer expenditures.”
Rule of thumb: If two expressions communicate the same information, one of them needs to go.
2. Prepositional phrases
Prepositional phrases make writing sluggish and confusing, perhaps more so than any other type of expression. Each additional prepositional phrase in a string exacerbates this problem.
Example strings of prepositional phrases: “The start of the war between Germany and France in Europe in the 1800s near the border of Belgium created problems with the trade of items manufactured by both sides of the conflict.”
Prevention: Use active verbs; use possessives and adjectives; remove any description that is not directly related to the subject or main verb.
After diet and exercise: “In the 1800s, both sides in the German–Franco war near Belgium experienced problems trading manufactured goods.”
Rule of thumb: As few prepositional phrases as possible, and never in a string of three or more.
Nominalization is making nouns from active verbs. Action verbs are interesting; nouns aren’t, and nominalized verbs make writing dull, confusing, and pretentious.
Example nominalization: “My recommendation is that we take this into consideration.”
Prevention: Find the nominalizations and convert them into action verbs.
After diet and exercise: “I recommend we consider this.”
Rule of thumb: Avoid nominalizations.
4. Unnecessary words
Any word that does not help readers understand is unnecessary.
Example unnecessary words: “Fast drivers sneer at drivers who are slower.”
Prevention: Cut them out and revise if needed.
After diet and exercise: “Fast drivers sneer at slower drivers.”
Rule of thumb: Remove as many words as possible without damaging clarity.
5. Multi-level description
Multi-level description is description of description. Text that describes the subject or verb is a level-one description. Text that describes the level-one description is a level-two description. Multi-level descriptions distract the reader from the point you’re making.
Example multi-level description: “Leadership teams comprise experienced administrators, who typically understand all responsibilities, from entry level positions to policy-making duties [describing responsibilities, which is part of the description of administrators], in the company.”
Prevention: Map sentences to determine what describes what; write more sentences.
After diet and exercise: “Leadership teams comprise experienced administrators. These administrators understand all responsibilities, from the lowest to highest company levels.”
Rule of thumb: To the extent possible, don’t describe description in the same sentence.
Get on a Diet and Exercise Program
Your writing can be lean and powerful, rather than fat and weak. Don’t be lazy about trimming and revising your text: get active. You write because you have a purpose to accomplish. Do the editing necessary.