of Extra Words—Part Two
by Nann Dunne
We all have a store of phrases that we rattle off automatically;
they are part of our daily conversations . But when we constantly
insert these phrases into our writing, they become almost invisible
weights, dragging crisp, clean sentences into sluggish swamps.
Today, I’ll address a few of those phrases, just to raise your
awareness. The next paragraph is part of this article, but I’ve used
it to show examples of burdensome phrases, which I’ve italicized in
the unedited version and then changed.
Most line editing follows well-established rules that govern
grammar, proper word usage, sentence structure, etc. But sometimes,
editors have to choose whether to delete nonessential words or
phrases that might otherwise be grammatically correct. The deletion
shouldn’t be done indiscriminately: the editor needs to consider the
author’s style, the mood of the scene, and the "singing" of the
sentence, for example. But most of the material I’ve encountered—and
I include my own writing—tends toward overuse and repetition of
Most line editing can be based on
well-established rules; for instance, those that govern
grammar, proper word usage, sentence structure, etc. Other
editing becomes somewhat subjective. That is, editors have to
make their own judgments about the use or abuse of the specific
words or phrases used in the current text being edited, even though
the words or phrases might be couched in perfect grammar. The
deletion shouldn’t be done indiscriminately: the author’s style, the
mood of the scene, and the "singing" of the sentence, for example,
need to be considered. Most of the material I’ve
encountered—and I include my own writing—tends toward overuse and
repetition of phrases, many of which are entirely
The unedited version uses 33 extraneous words. That might not
matter to you if you’re writing a folksy article for the local
newspaper. (Not that "folksy" means throwing in useless words. Every
word in every work should count.) But if you’re writing an article
or story that needs to get past a knowledgeable editor before being
published, strong editing increases your chance of success.
Here are a few wordy phrases:
1. about the fact that (Ed. note: Anytime you use "fact,"
consider the possibility of deletion.)
Example: She worried about the fact that Jan hadn’t
Better: She worried that Jan hadn’t called.
2. return back (Ed. note: "re" means "back." Don’t refer back,
retrieve back, recall back, etc.)
Example: He returned the book back to the library.
returned the book to the library.
3. in the capacity of
Example: She’s here in the capacity of a witness.
She’s here as a witness.
4. according to plan
Example: If the move goes according to plan, we’ll be there
Better: If the move goes as planned, we’ll be there
5. indicate that
Example: She indicated that she would be late.
said she would be late.
6. degree to which
Example: No one knew the degree to which she cared.
one knew how much she cared.
7. purpose of
Example: The purpose of the lottery was to raise
Better: The lottery was to raise money.
8. up until this moment
Example: Up until this moment, he believed the
Better: Until now, he believed the weatherman.
9. come as a disappointment to
Example: This may come as a disappointment to you, but she's not
Better: This may disappoint you, but she’s not here.
10. the region of
Example: They live in the region of Manitoba.
live in Manitoba.
Not all, but many needless phrases contain prepositions: about,
at, for, of, on, to, up, upon, etc. When you’re revising, it can
help to get a full list of prepositions (available on the net) and
search for each one. Then check to see which phrases could be
shortened or deleted.
For those who are serious students of editing, try The Dictionary
of Concise Writing, 10,000 Alternatives to Wordy Phrases, by Robert
Hartwell Fiske. But just being aware of a tendency to overuse
prepositional phrases will be a huge help.
Dunne's Fiction-Editing Handbook (a work in
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