Elements of Critique: Wordiness

In three months of limited mobility after a couple months of relaxation, I ballooned up to 250 pounds. No judgment of any readers intended in that statement–but the Air Force does not look favorably on an active duty service member gaining so much weight.

Over the last two months or so, I’ve put in hours on the bike and elliptical every week, while carefully tracking every bite I eat. I started programs to build back my push-ups and sit-ups to where they once were. I’ve eaten carrots while my friends enjoy carrot cake.

Today was my first PT test since surgery. I lost 30 pounds, hobbled through a 16-minute 2K powerwalk, more than doubled the push-ups I was able to do at first, and improved my sit-ups to my second best score ever.

I barely met the standards, but I passed the test. A half-inch more on the waist, or a couple less push-ups or sit-ups, and I would have failed.

Wasted words have a similar effect on our readers. We never know when a reader will say “That’s one too many,” and put down our writing. So I look for wordiness when I critique writing.

Sometimes my writing gets fluffy, bloated with excess words. Paragraphs fill up with empty “calories” and sentences struggle to push their meaning to the reader. Unnecessary words weigh writing down. It becomes sedentary and slow, when it should be direct and dynamic.

There are two kinds of wordiness that I look for: flowery and flabby.

Flowery is the elaborate description or long, drawn-out paragraphs that say nothing while sounding artistic. When a writer describes a table for a couple paragraphs, discussing the waves in the grain of wood as though the years reflected in the tree’s core like the tides of the ocean, leaving small traces of life… stop. Please.

Flowery is the woman who wears makeup and perfume to the gym, who spends most of her time pretending to exercise while attracting attention. It’s the guy who spends more time flexing in the mirror than lifting any weight. It’s writing that says, “Look at me, aren’t I just the prettiest sentence?”

In other words, flowery wordiness serves no purpose in a piece of writing and doesn’t belong. Critique should point this out and politely suggest a cut.

Unlike flowery wordiness, flabby wordiness at least tries to get the job done. But it huffs and puffs, pushing through exhaustion because of the added weight it carries.

Flabby wordiness shows up when included words say nothing to strengthen the point of a sentence. In critique, I point these out when they appear to offer no benefit to the intended meaning.

I’ve made part of a sentence with several examples of empty words I look for. These words add weight we don’t want our writing to have to carry around:

What I took out “was just that which very suddenly has really had” enough usage.

In almost all these cases the offending word can be removed with no significant loss of meaning. There are instances where they should be used, but these are rare.

Was verb-ing is a frequent structure that shows incomplete action. Incomplete action reads weak compared to completed action. Reword where possible. A similar problem word is “started,” as in “he started to verb.” There’s no need for that unless the writer is saying how long ago a thing began, e.g. “I started playing piano when I was eight years old.”

Just is often used as filler, as a way to show some slight difference. “Just after 9 PM…” “Just when I got back from the party…” Since the difference is so slight, it is unnecessary. The reader will get the meaning without this filler.

That is often used in a passive style of writing. “It was after 9 PM that I got back from…” “She is the one that Mr. Smith saw…” We want to write active, not passive. We want cardio writing, not couch potato sentences.

Which is similar to ‘that.’ It specifies certain details to distinguish this one from that one or from all others. But the structure is often unnecessary, and often brings ‘was’ along with it. Consider: “The bird which was in the tree eyed the cat which was climbing toward it.” vs. “The bird in the tree eyed the cat climbing toward it.”

Very is horrible. It’s telling the reader instead of showing, but it doesn’t even tell anything. “The loud noise” vs. “The very loud noise” shows no significant distinction. Find a different word. “The very mean old man” could be “The old curmudgeon” or “The cruel miser” or “The aged tyrant who ruled the kingdom of Front Lawn.” Anything is better than ‘very.’

Suddenly is telling. “Reader! Something happened! Be surprised! It happened ‘suddenly’ so you should gasp or something!” Exclamation points are clearly the punctuation version of this. If showing sudden change is necessary, then we should show it in the reaction of a character to the event.

Has is usually found in “has been verb-ing.” This is still not past tense complete, so it’s still not as strong as it could be. Ironically, writing an action in the completed form makes it sound more alive and exciting to the reader, as if it’s happening right now.

Really is another attempt, like ‘very,’ at trying to show emphasis. In the same way, it offers no measurement or indication of how significant an emphasis. We can use a stronger word instead. “The night air felt really cold” vs. “The frigid night air”

Had is often used to show an action took place long before the current scene. Sometimes “had” is used in flashbacks. Inspired by the noble rules of grammar and a desire to avoid any possible confusion, some writers turn into Sir Galahad’s brother, Addahad. They make every verb into “had verbed” because the reader has to know this is a flashback! However, if the sentence clearly shows the time the action took place, well before the current action, then there’s no need for “had.” Likewise if the flashback start point and end point are obvious, the reader doesn’t require “had” before every verb. They’ll understand.

Case in point, compare “When I had originally written this, I had been sitting in Starbucks where I had an iced Americano” with the following:
“When I originally wrote this, I sat in Starbucks sipping an iced Americano.” Eighteen words in the first version, thirteen in the second. Five words isn’t much, but this is one sentence.

Imagine reducing a plethora of sentences by five words each. That would be like spending hours on the “writing craft treadmill,” cutting down flab and achieving tighter writing.

And who knows? That might be the last bit standing in the way of passing a test and getting published or winning a lifetime reader.

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