Cut the Flab, a Writing Primer

Simple steps to improve bloated writing

 

In a digital world, many people only know you through your writing. At work and in your personal life, social media extends our connections across the globe.  So it’s more important than ever to write well.

But who has time for a class? Improve your writing immediately by following these simple rules.

George Orwell’s first three rules of writing are: (i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. (ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. [link to Writing and Orwell]

Avoid flabby language and clichés, never use ten vague words where two will do, always seek the vivid phrase, the exact word.  Ursula Le Guin

Both writers suggest two things: cut vague words and don’t use clichés.

Doing so will tighten your writing, making it easier to understand and more effective. Here are three real examples, written by an educator, a middle school student,  and an Average Jane.  A tight example follows each.

 

The School Administrator

Flabby language, vague words, and gobbledygook

Here is a real world example from a middle school principal who included this excerpt and wrote the following commentary (in blue).

2. ” Introvert, Extrovert, Convert” – From the author’s introduction to Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

“,,,As Quiet will explore, many of the most important institutions of contemporary life are designed for those who enjoy groups projects and high levels of stimulation. As children, our classroom desks are increasingly arranged in pods, the better to foster group learning, and research suggests that the vast majority of teachers believe that the ideal student is an extrovert. We watch TV shows whose protagonists are not the “children next door,” like the Cindy Bradys and Beaver Cleavers of yesteryear, but rock stars and webcast hostesses with outsized personalities, like Hannah Montana and Carly Shay of iCarly. Even Sid the Science Kid, a PBS-sponsored role model for the preschool set, kicks off each day by performing dance moves with his pals…”

At School X, our faculty is keenly aware of the fact that students, ages 10-14, are experiencing developmental impacts (physical, emotional, intellectual) with as much intensity as their pre-school years!  Layer on to that the consolidation of personality traits, identity formation and learning/work styles and you have all the makings of a “roller-coaster” ride!  As “reflective thinkers“, we seek out research and points of view that can challenge our existing practices.  As noted above, sometimes at school and at home, our children feel that the adults are always trying to change them to develop in the opposite direction.  We attempt to “convert” the introvert to extrovert and sometimes vice-versa.  Certainly, as with most issues in schools, the most effective approaches tend to find the “center”.  As our students continue to manage the transition to a new school year, they will appreciate our acknowledgement that their “original self” is to be cherished and that “growing” into new responsibilities and independence sometimes requires moving out of “one’s comfort zone”.  The quote above reminds us to balance that expectation against the equal necessity of maximizing the potential that resides within our comfort!

 

  • This is an example of bloated writing, or pompous, wordy writing which adds nothing to the message.
  • I don’t understand it.
  • What are developmental impacts? And identity formation? Or reflective thinkers? Are thinkers not reflective? What does it mean to maximize potential that resides within our comfort? If this is the case, why does the previous sentence state that students must move out of their comfort zone? The balance means moving out then moving back in. Huh?

Correcting this involves more than cutting flab. The paragraph is incoherent and the topic is unclear.  If writing is thinking on paper, then this educator left his brain at home.  Here’s his thought process:  Middle School is about change, but research tells us to accept introverts, so we suggest moderation.  Yet sometimes students have to push the limits and then again, sometimes we must accept who they are within our limits.  Yikes.

Writing like this is common today.

What follows is MY BEST GUESS of what this educator intended to say, still incoherent but concise.  I’m taking liberties, but I have read the book Quiet (link to review) and attended Susan Cain’s lecture.

 

Tight Version

Our students experience physical, emotional, and intellectual change at this age. This change along with a variety of personalities and learning styles can make Middle School a turbulent time.  Author Susan Cain challenges existing practices which favor the extrovert and pressure introverts to be something they’re not. This happens at school and at home and the most effective approach tends to be moderation. We cherish each student and encourage their* growth as they* take on responsibilities and become more independent.

 *Their and they are plural in number even though student is singular, but it has become acceptable to use them to replace the gender specific singular pronouns he and she.]

 

Common Writing Advice - I haven't read this but reviews are solid

Common writing advice, I haven’t read this but reviews are solid (Click here)

 

 

Middle School Student

Flabby language

Some of the subjects and courses that I am interested in are geography, history, and biology/life science. I am interested in geography because I like to learn about different places, and learn how the political boundaries have been formed.   I enjoy history because it teaches you the past and shows how to learn from the faults of our ancestors. I like biology because I enjoy learning about animals and different types of cell structures. When I learn I like to participate and be a part of the discussion at hand. Outside of school I like to be outdoors and playing sports.

  • This writer uses details and writes better than the Administrator. But typing enables flabby writing. It’s cheap and easy to write long. Notice the parallel sentence structure: I am interested… I like… I enjoy… I like . . . This is common for a young writer.
  • To fix this, combine predicates and clauses. Cut words. Vary sentence length.

 

Tight Version

Geography, history, and life science are my favorite subjects. I like to learn about different places and how political boundaries are formed; history helps me understand the past and learn from the faults of our ancestors.  In Biology I enjoy learning about animals and cell structures.  I learn best from classroom discussion, but I love the outdoors and sports.

 

T shirt cliche

 

The Average Jane

Flabby language

So we wanted to wish you only the very best in the days ahead. Graduation is a challenging time in a young life and when I remember that I last saw you when you were just knee high to a tadpole, I’m amazed at how fast time flies. Keep your nose in the books and stay focused. This next stage is one of the best times of your life. Good luck to you. 

  • Three clichés and too many words

 

Tight Version

Graduation is a milestone event and we’re glad we could attend. You’ve grown into an accomplished young man since we saw you last.  So continue learning and remember that college is one of the best times in life.  We wish you well in the days ahead.

  • The voice is clear, but the clichés are belittling and they diminish the sentiment about college. Well wishes belong last. This writing is sincere and more effective.

 

What now?

Look over the next sentence or note you write, whether it is a report, a Facebook post, or office memo.

Can you cut words and keep the message? Did you use clichés? Writers owe it to their readers to cut flab, to say it with less, and to make every word count.

Share the rules with  your children.  A classical approach to learning includes seeing a poor example and a good example.  Plus it’s easy to get started:  cut vague words and clichés.

 

I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter. Blaise Pascal, though often attributed to Mark Twain

If I had my time to go over again, I would make my sermons much shorter, for I am conscious they have been too wordy. Martin Luther

 “That depends on the length of the speech,” answered the President. “If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.” President Woodrow Wilson

 

If you like this, read about Elegant Sentences, Grammar vs. Rhetoric  or read all of Orwell’s rules here.

 

 

Oct 3, 2014

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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