25 words

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Your sentences are too long. Shorten your sentences!

As an editor, I’m more descriptive instead of prescriptive. I know that audience, context and genre shape meaning. Language is a shifting beast–but more problematically than that, the so-called ‘rules’ of grammar and writing are arbitrary, classist, colonialist, even wrong.

But I’m still going to tell you to shorten your sentences. Aim to keep them no longer than 25 words. Here’s why & how.

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Making paragraphs flow

Screen Shot 2018-05-12 at 3.41.54 PMWe all know that good paragraphs cohere around a single topic and are book-ended by strong, analytical take-away sentences. But how can a disjointed, staccato-sounding paragraph be made to have flow?

Flow is an elusive quality — it’s the sense that sentences move logically and seamlessly without repetition or heavy-handed transitioning. Sometimes this flow comes from the structure of the paragraph itself, which may follow an order such as

  • general to particular (big to small),
  • particular to general (small to big),
  • question to answer, or
  • effect to cause.*

But when the paragraph as a whole doesn’t have an overarching shape, how can a writer make their ideas flow logically? If you’ve ever been told that your writing is “choppy” or “fragmented,” here’s your fix:

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Intensifiers don’t

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Intensifiers — the adverbs and adjectives that writers include to add force to their expression — don’t have the effect that some imagine they might.

Take these two examples:

  1. Dave is a trustworthy employee.
  2. Dave is a really trustworthy employee.

In which of these examples might a reader be left wondering if Dave will be pocketing staplers on the way out the door?

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Words to watch for: zombie nouns

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“The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.”

In her New York Times essay and its associated TED talk, Helen Sword terms “nominalizations” — that is, nouns that contains within them shorter verbs, adjectives, or other nouns — “zombie nouns” because they “cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.”

Academics, we’re told, love zombie nouns; that may be because academics are frequently concerned with abstract concepts, or it may be because we all like the idea of a reinvigorated, reanimated, living dead thing (can you say, “revise and resubmit”?).

A nominalization or “zombie noun” can often be recognized by an ending such as:

  • -able
  • -ance
  • -ation
  • -ency
  • -ian
  • -ion
  • -ism
  • -ity
  • -ment
  • -ness
  • -sion

Zombie nouns are a problem when they render your writing more abstract than it needs to be. So how can you talk about an abstract concept — say, participation, or perception, or relationships — without letting the zombie hoards deaden your writing?

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Words to watch for: the hollow verbs

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Shape without form, shade without colour, / Paralysed force, gesture without motion“: TS Eliot’s eponymous “hollow men” are said to represent Western culture after the First World War.

It’s obviously a dramatic overstatement for me to apply Eliot’s post-apocalyptic words to a list of hollow verbs.

And yet …

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Bring clarity by objectifying your language

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The mental movie of a mouse cowering the corner of a cage that has another mouse in it gets chunked into ‘social avoidance.’ You can’t blame the neuroscientist for thinking this way. She’s seen the movie thousands of times; she doesn’t need to hit the PLAY button in her visual memory and watch the critters quivering every time she talks about whether her experiment worked. But we do need to watch them, at least the first time, to appreciate what actually happened.  (Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style. Viking, 2014: p. 71)

Steven Pinker argues that academics like our neuroscientist, above, tend to use abstract language in their writing because they “chunk” together discrete events — the many instances of mice cowering and quivering — into broader categories like “social avoidance.” Yet, as Pinker also notes, many readers won’t have done this same “chunking,” or will have different conceptual “chunks” of knowledge, and so will need to “watch” the mouse avoid its peer at least once in a piece of writing in order to follow the writer’s chain of thought.

So when and how should academic writers write about “social avoidance,” and when should they describe the actions of the mouse?

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Cut “is”

This is a writing problem that is easy to correct. (10 words)

This writing problem is easy to correct. (7 words)

When editing your draft, search for the word “is.” In the two sentences above, searching for “is” and rephrasing the sentence enabled the writer to cut 30% of the original word count without losing any of the original sentence’s meaning.

Short Tip: Use the “find” function in your word processor (Ctrl+F) to search for the words “is,” “was,” “are,” and “were.” These words are symptoms of wordiness.

Here’s how and why you should cut “is” as much as possible:

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