“I would have written a shorter letter but didn’t have time.” — attributed to Voltaire, Twain and Pascal, and probably a zillion other folks.
It’s a clever saying, but it is incredibly, sadly true of most people I know. I’ve already talked about the issue of writing yourself a giant slab of kitchen-sink marble that you then have to revisit and chisel away at until it’s something more resembling a work of art. That’s one thing. Writing down everything you want to include and then going back to pare the stuff you realize you don’t need is a valuable, maybe even essential, part of the writing process.
This is not true, however, of roundabout writing. Often, I bump into copy that is a feeble attempt at obfuscation. It has been my general experience that a writer’s word count on conveying a simple thought is inversely proportional to his confidence in that thought. If he’s absolutely certain that the cat climbed a tree, he will say, “the cat climbed a tree.” He won’t say, “The animal with feline qualities was purported to ascend the woody matter by means of self-propulsion.” (Well, some writers might do this on purpose. But I would maintain they are bad writers trying to sound erudite.)
Worse are the writers who pad their copy. You saw these guys in school — the ones who wrote a three page book report that said “I really, really, really …. really, really liked this book.” Argh. You don’t need ANY “really” modifiers — in fact, you probably don’t even need to say you liked the book. You can say “this book has a riveting plot and well-developed characters,” and I will infer your overall opinion.
You also don’t need a lot of helping verbs. If you find yourself winding around an idea, stop. Say it in three words, like Tonto. “Man presents invention.” Then add in some articles, and you’re good to go. You don’t need to say, (like a piece I saw recently,) that “the man announced the introduction of his invention.” You don’t need to say “the man’s proposal would establish a program that would help the homeless.” You can, but it’s far more elegant to say “The man proposed a homeless assistance program.” Right?
I’m not sure what most writers call this, but I had a composition teacher in college who referred to this as “trimming the fat” and that’s the only way I’ve ever been able to think of the process, disgusting a mental image as it is.
Other fat phrases: “draw a conclusion” (conclude!); “it is essential that you do X” (You must do X!);”despite the fact” (despite! although! maybe you don’t need to mention the fact at all!)
One I struggle with is “to try to do X.” (Please note, it is not “try AND do X.” You are trying to do it. You aren’t trying and doing it.) I realize there’s a difference between “I will continue to try to improve my writing” and “I will continue to improve my writing.” But there’s almost always a better way to say it. “I’ll keep trying to improve my writing.” “I will try to write better copy.” “I’m still busting my ass learning to write well.”