First, good writing is concise. Thomas Jefferson said, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” When someone writes past experience, fatally killed, foreign imports, or true facts, the reader has to wade through unnecessary clutter, and the author is perceived as either lazy or less than artful.
Secondly, have you come across a word that is repeated in consecutive lines of text, and your eye catches the repeat and jumps to that line, forcing you to go back and reread the sentence? Or how about a word that appears four or five times in the same paragraph? Again, your eye sees this, and now the words on the page are calling attention to themselves. Let me show you an example from my own writing.
Before: “The cardiac arrest was due to massive blood loss. When blood loss reaches a critical level, there aren’t enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to the heart. The heart then fibrillates and stops beating. Cardiac arrest is the terminal event of massive blood loss. In other words, Student Doctor Higgins, people who bleed to death ultimately die from cardiac arrest.”
After: “The patient’s cardiovascular collapse was due to uncontrolled hemorrhage. When blood loss reaches a critical level, and there are not enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to the heart, it fibrillates and stops beating. Cardiac arrest is the terminal event of massive blood loss. In other words, Student Doctor Higgins, people who bleed to death ultimately die from ventricular fibrillation.”
In the unrevised paragraph, the eye-catching combination cardiac arrest was used three times, massive blood loss twice, blood loss once, and blood once. In the first sentence of the revised paragraph, cardiac arrest and massive blood loss were replaced with cardiovascular collapse and uncontrolled hemorrhage.
At the end of the paragraph, the final cardiac arrest was replaced with ventricular fibrillation, thus reducing the use of cardiac arrest to a single instance. Blood is still seen three times, but it is used in different contexts and is therefore less likely to divert the eye.
Also of note, the second sentence ends with the heart, which is repeated at the beginning of the third sentence. By simply replacing the heart with the pronoun it and adding a comma, this cumbersome combination is eliminated.
Now, what is the redundancy-reducing tool I referenced earlier? It is simply the find feature in Microsoft Word (and probably other word-processing programs). When I have a final draft, the last thing I do is use this feature to look at nearly every word. For example, if I enter cardiac in the search box, every cardiac in the manuscript will be highlighted in yellow. In addition, the program will show every sentence (and its page number) containing the word in a scrollable column, thus making it simple to determine how many times it has been used, without having to look through the entire manuscript. If you find something that needs to be changed, click on the sentence and you will be taken to that page.
Furthermore, I’ll often find redundant words that simply can’t be deleted, but after giving it some thought, I’ll come up with a replacement that is better than the original. Replacing cardiac arrest and massive blood loss with cardiovascular collapse and uncontrolled hemorrhage is a good example of how this process can enrich the writing.
Finally, this technique is also useful for finding to be verbs (am, are, is, was, were, be, became, become). If you are writing in past tense, many of the be verbs are unavoidable, but oftentimes their presence signals a passive sentence, which can be rewritten in its active form.
Of course, this type of meticulous revising is hugely time-consuming, but if you take the time to do it, your work will be clean, lean, and will give agents and editors the impression that you are a thoughtful, artful writer.
Credit for the title of this post, and the Thomas Jefferson quote, goes to Laurie Rozakis. I borrowed these from her book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grammar and Style. If you are grammar-challenged and need a straightforward reference for your grammar and style issues, get this book.
By author Richard Van Anderson of rvananderson.com