Fewer words, fewer problems: How scaling back your word count can increase clarity and creativity

Show of hands: As a reader, who thinks long copy is good copy? Chances are not many hands are up right now. So why do so many writers tend to drone on (and on, and on) before making their point?

In many cases, they layer on more words in an attempt to make their writing clearer or more creative. Left unchecked, it almost always has the opposite effect.

Here are a few mistakes people make when trying to infuse creativity into their writing, along with more successful alternatives.

1) They lean too heavily on adjectives and adverbs.

Mark Twain had it right when he said, “As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.” More often than not, adjectives become a problem when writers pepper them throughout their pieces in an attempt to be more specific or creative. The result is an over-seasoned sentence that overwhelms the reader rather than impresses them. Writer’s Digest gives this example:

He gently expressed his love by whispering sweetly in her ear…

Do the readers get the point? Yeah, sort of. But see if this is more successful:

He whispered words of love… my dear angel… he purred his contentment, his joy.

 Why is this better? Because the static adverbs “gently” and “sweetly” are replaced with more impactful verbs and nouns like “dear,” “angel,” “purred” and “joy.” By using powerful, action-oriented words, writing becomes more direct and engaging.

2) They don’t vary sentence structure.

In an effort to sound precise, writers will sometimes write long sentences with multiple clauses, and give the readers little room to absorb the information presented to them. (Exhausting, right?)

Writers should let their words breathe. The best way to do this is by varying sentence structure. Switching up the lengths of sentences, throwing in questions where appropriate and providing other variations help keep readers’ attention.

One rule of thumb is to look back over a finished draft and ask yourself: Can I break these sentences down into shorter sentences without it sounding choppy? If so, then do it. The more dynamic the piece, the more engaging it will read.

3) They bury the lead.

Take another glance at the intro to this blog. How many sentences do you have to read before you can identify the topic of the blog? That’s the lead. And readers will jump ship if they can’t find it quickly.

Although it’s easy to get caught up in crafting the perfect hook or a tantalizing anecdote, it can easily become a mess of words that readers have to wade through. If they have to try that hard just to identify the topic, chances are they won’t read on.

Instead of junking up your intro, a more effective approach would be to write the lead first and then give yourself the challenge of only building up to it in three to five sentences. Chances are you’ll come up with something much more creative and clear.

If you’re having trouble infusing creativity or providing clarity in your writing, these three tactics are the first you want to try. You’ll see that streamlining a piece, rather than layering it, will give you the result you need.

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