Write tight!

That’s one of  first, and best, pieces of advice I received when I was a reporter on my college paper at 17. Throughout high school, I had been encouraged to show off whenever possible by writing long, complex sentences using big words, and plenty of them — fine if you’re Henry James, or an academic.

But you’re journalists. You need to convey maximum information in limited words or, on Twitter, characters. If you’re not a native English-speaker, the job is even harder: you may not know exactly how to express your thoughts, so you use more words.

Tight writing is writing that says what it means in as few words as possible. No, let me rephrase that:  Tight writing is writing that says what it means in as few words as briefly as possible.

An example from recent student work:

For the objectionists to gun control laws, one major argument that always comes into play is that there is no need for new legislation to reduce violence.

Instead, how about: 

For the objectionists Objectors to gun control laws , one major argument that always comes into play is argue that there is no need for new legislation is not needed to reduce violence.

That’s 16 words instead of 27 — enough for a whole new sentence. In contrast, the sentence that follows — The authorities, they say, can do that by simply keeping firearms from the wrong people. — is exactly right.

From the same piece: 

This seems to be the case for the bill introduced last Tuesday by a group of four House lawmakers.

Here are two ways to tighten: . . . the bill introduced last Tuesday by a group of four House lawmakers.

Four implies a group. And cut last, as per AP style. (“The word last is not necessary to convey the notion of most recent when the name of a month or day is used. Preferred: It happened Wednesday. It happened in April. Correct, but redundant: It happened last Wednesday.”) So that’s another word you can save.

Similarly, you can often save two in the phrase in order to . . ., as in:  

In order to avoid the sequester, Obama has been talking with members of Congress.

The infinitive (to + verb) implies that’s the goal. Just say: In order To avoid the sequester . . . Occasionally you’ll need those two words for clarity; when in doubt, read the sentence aloud to see if it makes sense without them.

Sometimes prepositional phrases produce wordiness. From another student:

The media team of Twitter is made up of 30 people. Or:   The Twitter’s media team of Twitter is made up of has 30 people. Six words instead of 11.

As the number of users of Twitter increases . . .  Better: As the number of users of Twitter users increase. (But not: as Twitter users grow. Their number may grow, but users must increase, unless you mean their bodies are getting larger.)

Do a few words here and there really make a difference? Ask any print journalist who’s ever had to trim “widows” — those pesky little lines of type with a single word or syllable — to make a story fit.  Tightening your writing lets you pack more facts, and more ideas, into the same  number of words. (I recently trimmed 1,000 of the 5,800 words in an academic paper just by tightening.) Copy editors are masters of the art; if you have a chance to work with a good one, you’ll learn a lot about writing tight. Until then, bring me your copy during office hours, Fridays from noon to 5 in cubicle 404F.



Comments are closed.