Thursday, June 24

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, June 24, 2010 19 comments
Welcome to part 5 of my series on overwriting. In case you missed the earlier posts in the series, here are the links:

Part 1- Overwriting: What is it?
Part 2- Overwriting: Diction
Part 3- Overwriting: Babbling
Part 4- Overwriting: Tangents

Today we get down and dirty with grammar as we look at common causes of wordiness. Many of these things are not grammatically incorrect and some may have a place in your writing. Just keep in mind that wordy constructions usually reduce clarity and feel overwritten. Trimming and revising wordy sentences will improve flow and pacing.

Beware of these “nouned verbs,” words created by adding suffixes to verbs, such as completion, deliverance, and agreement. They can sound ponderous and clunky. They’re also often a sign of passive writing, in which the subject is buried, typically within a prepositional phrase.

To repair the problem, identify who’s acting, make him the subject and convert the nominal to its verb form.

Whenever possible, replace nominal constructions like “be appreciative of” with the simple verb, in this case “appreciate.”

Strict enforcement of the speed limit by the police will cause a reduction in traffic fatalities.
Revised: Officers strictly enforcing the speed limit will reduce traffic fatalities.

Olivia’s friends are supportive of her in every way.
Revised: Olivia’s friends support her in every way.

“Expletives,” meant in the grammatical sense of “explaining,” use “there” or “it” with a form of “to be” and frequently add unnecessary words. Notice that expletives like to pair with nominals.

To repair the problem, move the subject to the fore and let it act with a strong verb. At times, adverbs can combat the problem, too.

There were fifty people in attendance at the meeting.
Revised: Fifty people attended the meeting.

There is a light breeze that is shivering among the branches.
Revised: A light breeze shivers among the branches.

It is apparent that the team members can’t agree.
Revised: Apparently, the team can’t agree.

Dependent clauses
Beware of unnecessary dependent clauses. You can usually eliminate them and they’re easy to find—search for frequent repetition of “who” and “that” followed by forms of “to be.”

Carrie recognized the dog who was chasing Leah.
Revised: Carrie recognized the dog chasing Leah.

Joe wants a medication that is prescribed by a physician.
Revised: Joe wants a medication prescribed by a physician.
Alternate: Joe wants a prescription medication.

Anyone who is willing to work hard will succeed in this class.
Revised: Anyone willing to work hard will succeed in this class.

Other perpetrators
A few other wordy constructions to watch for:

Using “to be” with “going to” rather than “will”

I am going to think about it.
Revised: I’ll think about it.

Paul is never going to buy that idea.
Revised: Paul will never buy that idea.
Alternate: Paul won’t ever buy that idea.

Using “would like to” instead of “want”

Casey would like to wear matching outfits.
Revised: Casey wants to wear matching outfits.

Adding unnecessary descriptions when meaning is clear from context

Gilbert put his shoes on his feet.
Revised: Gilbert put on his shoes.

If you can think of others, please drop a note in the comments.

Which of these areas trips you up? Any other helpful hints to add?


  1. Fine examples to keep you sharp! Being concise is important (xx not just in your stories, but xx) in your blog posts and comments as well.

    It's good practice to cleave out words (xx in your posts before xx) submitting.

    - Eric

  2. Thank you! These are really, really great advice. I often use wordy constructions, and need to actively look out for them.

  3. Hi Laurel -

    Thanks for the excellent lesson. This one's a keeper. :)


  4. All of this is wunderbar advice, good lady, and I wholeheartedly agree. EXCEPT... there are cases in which the voice one is aiming for in a certain piece calls for a bit of overwriting. As an example, if the controlling POV is supposed to be a bit pompous, "on account of the fact that" might actually be a better than the paltry "since."

    As always, if it works, then breaking the rules is perfectly acceptable.

    (I'm such a rebel.)

  5. If it's an unnecessary prepositional phrase, pretty sure it's in my WIP. Although this post makes me feel better about cutting all that crap out :)

    Although I do agree with Simon that somethings breaking the rules is just the thing to do.

  6. Great post, Laurel! As always. :)

  7. Excellent post! I'm guilty of wordiness and it's something I'm working on...;)

  8. Great specifics in this post. Thanks for helping other writers!

  9. Hi! I got this comment in a critique of mine and I have NO idea what it means. Could you shed some light? I feel so stupid, but I just don't get the terminology: "Misplaced modifiers. I’m seeing this phenomenon all the time with my clients! You do this just a little, but watch your antecedents. "

  10. Eric: Ha! I like lush rather than sparse writing. However, I write in a genre with austere word count restrictions, so I'm hyper conscious of not wasting words on things like clunky verb forms.

    Sandy: You're most welcome. The first few were problems I saw constantly in business writing. If you're using them, your narrative voice will sound like a CPA. :-D

    Susan: Glad you found it useful.

    Simon: I did include a disclaimer to that effect in the beginning, my friend. Passive writing and use of nominals are beloved by pompous windbags for sure (How's THAT for a passive sentence?). You're absolutely correct that these wordy forms can be useful for creating such a voice.

    JEM: I hope my disclaimer made it clear that passive writing is weaker and sounds overwritten and a little pompous--reserve it for pompous bureaucrat characters.

  11. Victoria: Aw, thanks. I always worry about boring people with grammar posts. :-D

    Karen: Glad it was helpful.

    Jamie: I've begun trimming some of those "other perpetrators." In YA it's tough to balance a colloquial voice (which can be wordy like that) with conciseness.

    Rosslyn: It's why I blog--these hard-won lessons are too good not to share with someone.

  12. AA: Would you hate it too much if I addressed this in detail in a future "editor-on-call" post?

    Here are your temporary quickie answers:
    "misplaced modifiers" mean your descriptions are in the wrong part of the sentence--too far away from what they are describing. LOTS of parts of speech behave as descriptions, but I'll go into that in my more detailed post.

    An antecedent is the noun/subject a pronoun refers to. In the sentence "He stepped closer," it should always be clear who the heck HE is. If not, you have an "unclear antecedent." Again, I'll cover this in detail soon.

  13. AA: hmm, I just re-read your editor's comment and think she meant antecedent more loosely as "reference point" or "thing referred to"--(which as far as I can see is an idosyncratic way to use this grammar term). I think she's saying make sure you're clear about what modifies what in a sentence.

  14. Great post as usual Laurel. I'm off the blogs this week, but I'll link it on my Cool Links Friday when I return. :D

  15. Marvelous tips and examples! I've had critiquers point these out before, but it so helpful to have them all summarized, I will definitely use this as a reference.

  16. That's a great list! It's amazing what a difference it makes when you turn a keen editing eye to these problem areas.

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