Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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Tightening Your Prose
Hemingway’s Influence

Writing tight prose need not make our writing dry and strangulated. Ernest Hemingway, known for his tight, concise prose style, influenced most twentieth century writers. The crispness of Hemingway’s style demonstrated that the overly elaborated style of the nineteenth century was simply unnecessary and often obscured the underlying richness of thought.

Learning to tighten our prose style can seem problematic, however, for developing writers. Where do we start? What is it we are tightening? The simplest answer is that often we are tightening the sentence itself. Five simple techniques can help us look at our sentences in a new way and recognize how to tighten our style.

Rules for Tightening Our Prose Style

1. Always omit unnecessary words, a journalistic revision tool that says: Never use two words where one will do. A simple exercise is to take any page you’ve written and omit 100 words from the page without changing meaning or context.

2. Learn to avoid empty or space-filler language, what I call empty place-holders in a sentence. A common example of this problem are all those sentences that begin with “There is . . .” or “There are . . . ,,” sentence openers common to academic writing where assertions and definitions are regular elements of writing. Grammatically correct, the this construction delays the subject or topic of the sentence. The reader is halfway into the sentence before stumbling over what it is about. Instead, get to the point right away.

3. Replace vague and empty language. Start by replacing weak verbs with strong verbs, but also watch out for unnecessary qualifiers like “very,” “really,” “absolutely,” and other empty or unnecessary qualifiers.

4. The ability to recast a sentence, allows a writer to use the above skills and even or to unpack a sentence with too many ideas in it. Some times adding words, i.e., another sentence, can actually tighten up the prose by clarifying the expression of the ideas.

5. Making more specific word choices often tightens the prose. Many indefinite words, such as pronouns like it or this create a feeling of density or vagueness. Again, choices, such as pronouns are not grammatically incorrect but such words don’t offer concrete information. A good exercise is to replace all vague, nonspecific words or phrases with concrete, specific word choices.

So, the old rule still stands: If in doubt, leave it, but also learn to avoid, replace, recast, and specify wherever you can, so your prose is clear and tight. 
  
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