Want to improve your writing? This summer, we’ve reached out to other editors, and we’re putting them to work for you — in our new series, Writing Tips.
By Marie Burrus
As an editor
—both formally and informally, I see one problem that trips up most writers who are just beginning as well as those who have been writing and/or speaking for several years: Wordiness. So, I’m known for my slash-and-burn style of editing.
When it comes to communicating clearly, less is usually more. Brevity may seem counterintuitive to your high school writing experience—I, too, have added boundless unnecessary and superfluous adjectives to meet a word count. But the clarity that comes with intentional brevity makes a huge difference in popular-level writing. If we want to say something meaningful, we need to say it clearly.
Make Your Point
Writing well is about communicating well. You need to know exactly what you’re trying to say. This is where a good thesis statement comes in. Whether or not you plan to use your thesis in the text, you need to be able to summarize any piece in one or two sentences.
From there, make your points without rambling. Once you’ve said what you need to say in a particular sentence or paragraph, stop. No really, just stop. Fight the urge to keep going if you’re still saying the same thing. Saying the same thing in different ways can be helpful sometimes, but it usually just gets old. I don’t know how many times I’ve read a long paragraph that doesn’t say anything more than the first sentence. So, if you’re adding words, make sure they actually contribute to your argument.
I can hear you groaning, and I get it. I love beautiful sentences full of alliteration, amplification and unnecessary complications readers have to chew on. (I majored in French after all.) Why say things commonly when you can make the reader work? Add some silent vowels in there for good measure!
But we have to remember why we write in the first place. The purpose of writing is to communicate, not just to highlight our abilities to shroud language in mystery. So, we need to meet people where they are as we write—both in form and methodology.
If we want to say something meaningful, we need to say it clearly.
Like it or not, everyone’s attention span is short these days, so our phrases should be as well. If a sentence runs longer than two or three lines, you probably need to break it up. This doesn’t mean we sacrifice the art of writing on the altar of convenience. Rather, we must find creative ways to make our writing both simple and beautiful.
Good writing involves more than just words; it’s also about a rhythm. You can alternate short sentences between ones that are more descriptive and dense. Add alliteration. Add what sounds nice when read aloud. When in doubt, a good prepositional phrase can make a transition flow without complicating things. Playing with the rhythm of your writing adds the right emphasis and charm without losing people along the way.
Cut it out
Art requires humility. Nowhere is this truth more evident than in the age-old writing advice to “kill your darlings.” In the process of creating, we often make something we think is so profound, so cool, so artsy—a “darling.” You may hold onto that one sentence you added to your outline so dearly, rearranging full paragraphs to make it work.
But it doesn’t quite fit; it’s unnecessary, or (worst of all) it’s just too complex and flowery to be comprehensible. In that case, you must cut your losses and remove that part. It’s painful; I know. However, our goal of clear and edifying communication to serve our readers can keep us on the right path.
One of the most surprisingly difficult assignments I had in seminary was a series of short book reviews. Somehow, we were supposed to boil several complex philosophy texts into a few paragraphs each. I stared at my copious notes with a thesaurus in hand and a pain in my head. Eventually, I discovered the power of a few, well-chosen words, and my writing improved.
Clarity doesn’t have to be elementary. If you know your audience well, you can choose meaningful words to pack the most punch without forfeiting beauty. Technical terms can actually come in handy—as long as they communicate with your audience. Instead of writing, “The issue seems to be related to our theology concerning the way we exercise different church practices,” you can simply write, “The issue seems to be ecclesiological.” It’s both clear and lovely in the right context.
As Christians who write, we must remember to put the emphasis on the message and not on ourselves. Whether or not our writing is explicitly “Christian,” the way we write should serve others by how it points beyond us to something bigger and more beautiful than ourselves. Our clarity is humility; it’s our capability to die to our own preferences and communicate something worthwhile.