Ever heard the phrase “brevity is the soul of wit”? Though William Shakespeare coined it four centuries ago, this proverb remains essential for writers.
Here’s a less fancy way of saying it: one can often do more by saying less. Here are some ways to do that with your writing.
Cut Redundant Actions
I tend to overpack my sentences with actions that don’t contribute much. For example, here’s an excerpt from a piece I’m working on now:
“‘Oh, yeah, absolutely.’ Watson smiled, nodded, and flashed her a thumbs up. ‘You’re the boss.'”
In this sentence, Watson performs three actions that express one idea: He approves of the plan. Three verbs make the sentence a tad jagged, not to mention longer than necessary. Let’s revise this to one action:
“‘Oh, yeah, absolutely.’ Watson smiled. ‘You’re the boss.'”
It’s a minor edit, but it makes a big difference.
Limit “Verb to Verb” Sentence Constructions
How many times have you heard a sentence like this: “She started to rise from the couch”? Or, “He began to collect all fifty two discarded cards”?
I’ve noticed this sentence structure in other people’s writing, as well as my own. It’s fine for emails, but otherwise clunky. But this mistake, like the last, has a simple solution: cut “started to” and “began to.” Get ’em outta here!
Of course, things get trickier when specifying timing. For example: “She started to rise from the couch when she heard a noise from the other room.” If it’s imperative to describe that timing, go for it. I’d just remember that such sentences are distracting and should be streamlined whenever possible.
Adverbs are words that modify verbs, usually ending in -ly. Quickly, widely, really, strongly, quietly, strangely. We all use them. While they shouldn’t be completely avoided (there’s one right there!), they’re best kept to a minimum.
Adverbs are like fat on a steak; They add weight to the cut, but they don’t have much nutritional value by themselves. Overusing adverbs slows a reader’s progress without adding anything nutritional.
For example, try this sentence, “Soley happily leapt after the bee as it carelessly flew on the softly-blowing breeze.”
This is one fatty sentence. Let’s trim it down a bit.
“Soley sprang after the bee as it glided on the summer breeze.”
The second sentence works far better than the first. The verb “sprang” hints at the happiness we mentioned in the original version, but here we get the same meaning from one word. The verb “glided” conjures up ease and grace. The summer breeze adds context to the scene while also providing subtle sensory details. This sentence now reads much more smoothly (whoops, sorry).
Like fat, adverbs are acceptable and even healthy in moderation. If you feel a particular sentence requires an adverb, use it. (Using them ironically is also encouraged.)
Since brevity is the theme of this post, I’ll keep my conclusion short. Let’s all write less!