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A Word, Please: The fact is bad writing really upsets her

January 10, 2014|By June Casagrande

Ask any grammar buff what separates good writers from the not-so-good and you’ll probably get an answer like misuse of “lay” and “lie” or dangling participles or “who” in place of “whom.”

But to me, these issues are minor. In my experience, one writing problem dwarfs every piddling usage error you can imagine. That problem: wordiness.

Consider this sentence, which appeared in an article I edited: “What's more — aside from a specialized curriculum — private schools are notoriously known for their smaller class sizes.”

That’s right. They’re “notoriously known.”

Obviously, that’s a poor adverb choice. “Notoriously” connotes something bad, while small class sizes are obviously good. But the question of which adverb to use here obfuscates an even more important question: Why use an adverb at all? Does the statement “private schools are known for their smaller class sizes” need adornment?

Professional writing eschews adverbs that add no information. That’s why “The car was fast” sounds more professional than “The car was really, really, totally, unbelievably fast.” Those adverbs convey nothing of substance. Compare that with “Sharon left quickly.” Thanks to the adverb, that sentence says more than “Sharon left.” So, in this sentence, the adverb pulls its own weight.

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But the unnecessary adverb in our example sentence is a relatively minor problem. The big problem is that this sentence uses 17 words to say what it could have said in nine.

Start with the opening clause “What’s more.” It means “in addition to what I just said, I’m going to say something else.” The reader already knew that the following sentence would contain “more,” building on what was just said. So this is a waste of words.

Then comes an even bigger waste of words: “aside from a specialized curriculum.” Obviously, the text that came before this sentence had something to do with a specialized curriculum. So why is the writer mentioning it again?

This illustrates something pros know and amateurs don’t: There’s almost never a reason to say “Aside from what I just said, I’m going to say something else.” Instead, pros just say it.

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