Saturday, 29 December 2012

Don't Waste Words

Be concise, not wordy – here's how.

Make your subject and object a thing or a person, not a long unwieldy clause.

That Britain has a problem with drink is highlighted not just by the figures, but by the fact that the government is busy devising a new strategy to address alcohol-related ill-health. (BBC February 20, 2012)

Make it: "Britain has a problem with drink, all right – the figures show it, and what's more the government is busy devising a new strategy to address alcohol-related ill-health." ("Britain" is now the subject, rather than "That Britain has a problem with drink". The bit about the figures is now in the active voice, not the passive, and we've lost some infill like "by the fact that".)

Turn passive to active. Make somebody do something.

"Until that dispute is resolved the museum's plans for a show about the Ottomans will have to be put on hold."

Make it: "Until that dispute is resolved the museum must shelve its plans for a show about the Ottomans."


If your subject is “the museum”, rather than “the museum’s plans for a show about the Ottomans”, you can peak on the Ottomans - otherwise the sentence trails away in dull words like “will have to be”.)

"An attack on Israel by Iran won’t occur this year." = "Israel won’t attack Iran this year."


Cut out empty words (of, a, in, the, has, been, he, they, it, what, mean, thing). Pick ones that refer to something concrete, something in the real world, something you can picture. Imagine you are tearing out photos from a magazine and arranging them in order.

Replace “to have” and “to be” with active verbs.

is a threat to = threatens
there have been growing rumours = rumours have spread
be of benefit to = benefit


Simplify. Cut to the chase.
Answer the question “Who did what to whom?”. Don’t start a paragraph: “The good news is that…”, “The thing I particularly like about this book is…”, “The trouble with that is that it is…” “One reason for that may be that the”, “The only question is whether or not…”, “One of the most interesting things about the X is that it does Y” or “Part of the reason for the X’s popularity is that it does Y”. (The X does Y, which may be why people buy it.)

Avoid constructions that use a lot of “has beens” and “to bes”. Especially not: “That would mean it having to be...”.

"This would have meant that shareholders would have had to have been taken into consideration."

Make it: “This would mean considering shareholders.”

One word can often stand in for a long verb with lots of bits:

"This approach often gave the restored buildings an empty appearance they had probably never previously had, or been meant to have."


Make it: "This approach often gave the restored buildings a spurious and anachronistic emptiness."

We peak on “emptiness” rather than trailing away with “or been meant to have”. You can picture “emptiness” – boring words like “or been meant to have” call up no image.

Bothered by ending a sentence with a preposition? Choose a non-compound verb:

pay no attention to = ignore


You can do a lot with an adverb:

"This made Galton a towering figure in the prehistory of counting, without him ever intending to be one." (New Scientist, April 2011) 

"Quite unintentionally, Galton became a towering figure in the prehistory of counting."

Or an adjective: "This made the unsuspecting Galton a towering figure in the prehistory of counting."

are going to have to = must
are seemingly = seem
be of benefit to = benefit
brought about the end of = ended
come as a shock to many = shocked many
discover the whereabouts of = find, pinpoint
do damage to = damage
equip with, supply with = give
get smaller = dwindle
gets closer to = nears
give a new lease of life to = give new life to
has the effect of reducing = reduces
has to do with = concerns
have an effect on = affect
have been used as inspiration for = have inspired
he decided to leave = he left
he delivered a broadside against = he attacked
he embraced a nomadic life = he wandered
he was lacking in ambition = he lacked ambition
in the meantime = meanwhile
is going to have to be = must be
is opposed to = opposes
make use of = use
managed to survive = survived
partially = partly
put a check on = check
put a stop to = stop
reached peak intensity = peaked
responded by saying = retorted
saw fit to refuse = refused
served as the inspiration for = inspired
serves to underline = underlines
subject them to persecution = persecute them
tell the story of = narrate
the drawing up of = drawing up
the good news is that there's a free buffet = there's a free buffet
the government's advice to parents is = the government advises parents
the workshops were intended to be a way of enabling artists to earn a living = were intended to enable artists to earn a living
the way to deal with that = the solution
they are sceptical = they doubt
this is what has created = this created
those who had been treated = those treated
took a tour of = toured
was the inspiration for = inspired
were the only ones who had put no weight back on = who hadn't regained weight
while also helping to make the den more waterproof = while waterproofing the den
with the help of = aided by

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