Precision in Writing – Is That Word Necessary?Posted: February 11, 2008
Writing with precision means more than using the right words and avoiding the nearly right words in a sentence. Sometimes it means taking out redundant words or phrases.
In his book, The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, Evan Marshall drives home that point in a section called “How to Be Your Own Editor.” The book was intended for fiction writers, it’s true, but the principles he advocates hold true also for those of us who write nonfiction. For readers to understand our message, we have to use the exact words needed — with no extraneous words getting in the way.
He illustrates that point in one short section on “Simplicity and Economy” by focusing on several common phrases where we might cut out redundancies like these: (comments following the phrases are mine)
Past history (remember all history is in the past)
The sky above. (Where else would it be?)
Continued on. (Continued means to go on.)
The ceiling/roof overhead. (Where else?)
Join together. (We cannot join apart.)
A little baby. (Most babies are little.)
A brief glance. (Every glance is brief.)
Tall skyscrapers. (That’s why they’re called skyscrapers.)
The end result. (Results are usually found at the end.)
In editing our own work, Marshall said we must scrutinize our writing to find and eliminate redundancies like these, but it’s better to choose our words so carefully that we don’t use them in the first place.
He also cautioned:
“Watch for introductory participles that don’t modify the subject of the sentence — an error that slips past many editors. ‘Leaving the village, the mountains glowed red in the sun’ ‘Opening the closet door, the cat sprang from the shadows.’ These statements give the mountains and the cat undue credit.”
Whatever our writing emphasis, when editing our own work it would profit us to follow Marshall’s advice: “Cast as cold an eye as possible on what you’ve created, recognize its strengths and weaknesses, and revise and edit to bring the manuscript to it full potential.”
Excellent advice for all of us.
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