5 commonly used phrases that weaken your writing

Most writers use too many words. It sounds silly, because it’s our literal job to use words. But too often we toss them on the page by the bucket, like amateur painters trying to recreate a Jackson Pollock. Your canvas of brown spots affirms how intentional Pollock’s seemingly laid-back brushstrokes were.

This is how good writers choose words carefully – or, more likely, cut words out of a first draft.

Verbosity clutters the sentences and obscures your message.

5 ways to say more with less

Brevity is especially important in blogging and social media writing, but it’s nothing new. You may remember William Strunk’s words from 1918: “Vigorous writing is concise.”

That sentiment is behind the slash you come across from the pen of a copy editor. Avoid the bloodshed and delight your editor with these tips for refining and strengthening your copy before you submit it.

1. A number of

I see too much of it in educational writing. My job as an editor is to comment each time, “How much?” Too often a writer uses this phrase because he does not know the “number” in question.

So don’t mention it. Your copy will be better if you can be specific, but when you can’t, waste no time showing what you don’t know.

  • You will face a number of doors. → You will face three doors.
  • Police arrested a number of suspects. → Police arrested suspects, but did not say how many.
  • You have several options. → You have options.

2. In order to

I haven’t come across a “for” that I can’t cut into “for” without changing the meaning of a sentence.

I barely know what that means and I suspect that ‘in order’ has stuck to infinitives in one of those professions that convinces its practitioners that the bloated copy looks smart, like law or academia or people who teach you to write a cover letter.

  • To start, we need… → To start, we need…
  • Go to the website to officially apply. → Go to the website to apply. → Apply on the website.
  • In order to determine the aggregate volume… → To determine the aggregate volume…

3. The fact that

You can often start this sentence from a sentence and be done with it, but sometimes you will have to rewrite it.

“The fact that” is not incorrect, and it may seem like your only option, but it’s a bit of a soft expression, and I think you can do better. Your writing deserves a farfalle or a cavatappi – ingredients that have the strength to stand up to sausages and creams.

  • The fact that you are reading this means… → Your reading means…
  • I didn’t like the fact that she got up. → I didn’t like her getting up.
  • Since most people are not rich… → Most people are not rich, so…

4. -ing verbs

You rarely need the progressive tense * of a verb. Try the present simple first; it will usually convey the same information in fewer syllables.

  • Many families spend 50% of their income on housing. → Many families spend …
  • It does not work when you are standing. → It doesn’t work when you stand up.
  • The law, allowing workers to receive an additional $ 600… → The law, which allows…

*It’s also called “continuous,” but I like the option that makes verbs appear to support universal health care. I searched the name on google to make it look smart in this newsletter. Did it work?

5. Regarding

I feel like this sentence came from a clever writer loaded with the word. Its sole purpose seems to be to lengthen otherwise concise sentences – or perhaps to insert a search keyword with awkward phrasing? Whatever the reason, don’t.

You can usually remove the clause to which this sentence is attached. (And try harder if you have to work with that keyword.)

  • When it comes to writing a book, motivation is tough. → Finding the motivation to write a book is difficult.
  • I don’t know what to tell you when it comes to Mary. → I’m not sure what to tell you about Mary.
  • When it comes to finding the treasure, you’ll want to go to the X. → Go to the X to find the treasure.

This article originally appeared in Newsletter Notes, a monthly selection of pet peeves, warnings, tips, secrets and pro tips for pitching, writing and, above all, publisher satisfaction.

photo by Green chameleon sure Unsplash