Recently, we shared The Writer’s Diet on Twitter. While some of us are cutting back on sugar and/or alcohol at the moment (we’re doing FebFast so it’s for a cause, mind you), this particular diet has nothing to do with what we put in our mouths.
Nope, it’s a tool to trim down your writing – showing you where you’ve used lazy language, abstract ideas and unnecessary words.
These words aren’t inherently ‘bad’. But too many and you veer into the ‘flabby’ or ‘heart attack’ categories – kind of like sweet treats and Shiraz.
So as well as cutting out food and drinks our waistlines might not agree with, this month we’ve been extra conscious of words that add inches to our writing. Here’s what we’ve been looking out for.
Back to basics: nouns and verbs
When you first learnt the difference between a noun and a verb, what did your teacher tell you? A noun is a naming word, and a verb is a doing word. Noun equals thing. Verb equals action.
Unfortunately, lots of people forget that important lesson as they get older. Nominalisation (making verbs into nouns) gives your writing an abstract, static tone. But ‘There is inequity in the distribution of wealth in Australia’ can become ‘Wealth is distributed unfairly in Australia’ or even ‘A few people in Australia have most of the money’. The lesson? Leave verbs as verbs, and use concrete language and examples to illustrate abstract ideas.
‘Verbing’ is a similar sin. Some people seem to think turning nouns into verbs makes them sound more action-oriented. In reality, it often sounds like insufferable (and lazy) corporate speak. You don’t action things. And I’d rather bang my head against a table than table a discussion.
I don’t always advocate for lessons learned in primary school, but this is an exception. Let’s keep nouns and verbs as they were meant to be.
Avoid adjectives and adverbs (most of the time)
A lot of writers have a bone to pick with these words. That’s because, a lot of the time, you can cut them without altering the meaning of your sentence.
Let those concrete nouns and verbs do most of your work, and use adjectives and adverbs only when they add new and necessary information to a sentence.
Your Cmd+F checklist
A lot of the words you use in a first draft are pure padding – tiny little words that mean almost nothing. When you’ve finished writing, use the find function (Cmd+F on a Mac, Ctrl+F on a PC) to search your work for them – and then delete them, if you can. Here’s a list:
- There – in the sense of ‘there is’ or ‘there are’. You’ll tend to find this introducing sweeping generalisations you can also delete. Bingo!
- That – you can often get rid of ‘that’ without changing the meaning of a sentence. (Sometimes I’ll keep it to preserve the rhythm of a phrase, but nine times out ten it’s gone.)
- Just – a nothing word, often used in an apologetic way by women. Let’s kill lazy writing and self-sabotaging cultural conditioning with one stone.
- Always – not necessary most of the time.
- Never – ditto.
- Some – ditto.
- Really – ditto.
- Very – sigh, ditto.
By the way, this blog post got a score of ‘lean’ on The Writer’s Diet. How trim can you go?