In a recent release of Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell introduces his podcast listeners to Dr. Bernadine Healy.
In this episode, he asks Johanna Schneider, who worked with Dr. Healy at the National Institutes of Health, to describe her to listeners. Schneider said several things, including this: “She had a wooden sign on her desk that said, ‘Strong verbs, short sentences.’ And that was Bernie.”
Using that wooden sign’s message as a callback, Gladwell seemed to say that Dr. Healy’s value of strong verbs and short sentences conveyed formidable strength, in person and on paper. A force to be reckoned with, Dr. Healy communicated with precision and clarity.
“Strong verbs, short sentences” reminds me of the advice we hear so often: Write tight.
“If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” ~ George Orwell.
“Writing improves in direct ratio to the things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.” ~ William Zinsser
“Omit needless words.” ~ William Strunk Jr.
I thought about stopping right there. I mean, “Strong verbs, short sentences”? Strunk nailed it.
Omit Needless Words
In an increasingly impatient world accustomed to texts, tweets, and sound bytes, this classic advice feels timely and, like it or not, necessary. Readers are impatient. We can’t waste their time.
As we embrace this new cultural tendency toward sentence fragments and textspeak, we can write so tight we squeeze out nuance, texture, and meaning. If we interpret “Omit needless words” to mean “Write in the sparest style possible, like Hemingway,” we may be missing the point.
The Elements of Style elaborates on its own concise, unambiguous, three-word sentence, “Omit needless words” when it says this:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. (The Elements of Style)
Let every word tell.
Make every word count.
Include Necessary Words
Instead of hacking away at our work, reducing it to a series of short sentences that hammer away at the reader’s ear, we study our work to determine the necessary elements. Sometimes, we need more words for clarity.
Our culture often points to Ernest Hemingway as the master of strong verbs and short sentences, elevating him to the master of concise, clear writing—so much so, someone created an app called The Hemingway Editor.
From its help page, it claims the app “makes your writing bold and clear…Almost any bit of writing could use some cutting. Less is more, etc…. So, the Hemingway Editor will highlight (in yellow and red) where your writing is too dense. Try removing needless words or splitting the sentence into two. Your readers will thank you.”
Using the Automated Readability Index, the Hemingway Editor evaluates the “grade level” of your writing style when you paste a portion into the app, which you can do online for free.
Turns out Hemingway didn’t write like Hemingway, at least not the way we’ve oversimplified his style, reducing it to strong verbs and short, declarative sentences.
I plucked The Sun Also Rises from my shelf. Listen to this sentence:
He was married five years, had three children, lost most of the fifty thousand dollars his father left him, the balance of the estate having gone to his mother, hardened into a rather unattractive mound under domestic unhappiness with a rich wife; and just when he had made up his mind to leave his wife she left him and went off with a miniature-painter. (4)
That’s one sentence—just one. Penned by Hemingway himself.
For fun (and I’m not the first to try this), I pasted it into the Hemingway Editor online. This sentence received a poor score. The app suggested I simplify it because its readability is post-graduate and that particular sentence is, in the app’s words, “very hard to read.”
I added the two preceding sentences, to see how that affected the app’s evaluation, so that it read:
He was a nice boy, a friendly boy, and very shy, and it made him bitter. He took it out in boxing, and he came out of Princeton with painful self-consciousness and the flattened nose, and was married by the first girl who was nice to him. He was married five years, had three children, lost most of the fifty thousand dollars his father left him, the balance of the estate having gone to his mother, hardened into a rather unattractive mound under domestic unhappiness with a rich wife; and just when he had made up his mind to leave his wife she left him and went off with a miniature-painter.
The longer passage fared worse than the single sentence. The app said two of the three sentences are “very hard to read,” and it flagged two instances of passive voice.
If Hemingway can’t write like Hemingway, what are we to do?
Write Tight But Add When You Must
Strunk & White clarifies that we need not write in the plain style of Fun with Dick and Jane. As they say, don’t “avoid all detail” or treat your subjects “only in outline.”
Instead, make every word contribute to the purpose of the piece. Let that guide your choices when elaborating on an idea or adding life to scenes.
In that one sentence from The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway summarized years of back story to bring us up to speed. He included a few choice details: the three children, the inheritance, the miniature-painter. The passive voice may have been on purpose, to suggest the passive life of this man.
Hemingway added depth to the character and context to his situation.
He let every word tell.
Add when you must. Long sentences may be needed, even to mix things up with some short, some medium length, some long.
But most writers need to simplify, trimming excess words to move the reader deeper into the story.
Simplify to Write Tight
Some ways to go about it?
In our last episode, I recommended the tweak to remove “there was” or “there were” and revise the sentence, so “There were ten baby bunnies under the bush” simplifies to “Ten baby bunnies huddled under the bush.”
Examples from Strunk & White:
- “the question as to whether” becomes “whether”
- “there is no doubt but that” simplifies to “no doubt”
- “he is a man who” can be simply “he”
- “this is a subject which” reduces to “this subject”
Watch Regional Phrasing
Those who write in a conversational tone may find regional phrases slip onto the page that contain extra, unnecessary words. You may choose to keep them for effect—the reader may need to know where you or a character lives or learned to speak. Or you may decide to clean those up and tighten.
For example, I find myself wanting to write “tighten up” when “tighten” suffices. Must be a Midwestern thing.
If your regional accent drags extra words to the page, watch for them and decide if they stay or go.
I don’t know about readers, but editors cringe when they encounter too many adverbs. Better to find a stronger verb than to intensify a basic verb.
A subset of adverbs known as intensifiers—more formally as “adverbs of degree”—serve us in verbal communication but seem weak in our writing. “Very” and “really” intensify a word—like “very angry”—when a more precise word—like “furious”—adds far more to a scene.
Eliminate an adverb used to modify an adjective or verb and hunt for a more vivid word to replace the two. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”
Try the Hemingway App
For fun, go ahead and paste a passage from your work in progress into The Hemingway Editor and study the results. You know its bias for brevity, now that we’ve dropped in a Hemingway sentence, but give it a try. It’ll catch repetition and long phrases and offer alternatives for how you can express the same idea in a word or two.
You can decide if their recommendations seem too severe, now that you’re finding the balance of specificity and simplicity.
When you read your work aloud, pay attention to your own energy and attention. If you bore yourself, you’ll bore your reader.
Take note of long sections where you can’t catch your breath. Chances are, you’ve composed a rambling, complicated sentence. Long sentences can be hard to follow, so if it’s dragging on too long, break it in two or cut a clause or phrase. If you confuse your readers, you can lose them.
Be specific, which may expand your words to bring clarity and elements of style, but write tight to hold their attention.
- The Elements of Style (excerpt came from Part III of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, a section titled “Elementary Principles of Composition”)
- You can listen to the “Strong Verbs, Short Sentences” episode of Revisionist History on YouTube
- The Hemingway App online
- Sample sentences from The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954, page 4. Print.
- Ep 167: How to Be a Better Writer (Pt 2): 3 Simple Tweaks You Can Try Today
- Ep 166: How to Be a Better Writer (Pt 1): Start with the Right Mindset
- Ep 109: Improve Your Writing with a Growth Mindset
- Ann’s Patreon account
- All podcast episodes
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