Cut Word Count: Avoid Linking Verbs & Empty Expressions Cut Word Count: Avoid Linking Verbs & Empty Expressions | Shades of Crimson

Cut Word Count: Avoid Linking Verbs & Empty Expressions

by Davina on July 1, 2013

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Change verbs from passive to active voice

This is the third and final post in a series about ways to cut word count. In “6 Easy Ways to Cut Word Count” and “5 Ways to Cut Wordiness,” we discussed moderating weasel words, dialogue tags and back story, and scaling down descriptions of small movements, filter words and repetition.

There is still more you can do to reduce word count: write in the active voice.

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) states that:

Active voice makes subjects do something (to something); passive voice permits subjects to have something done to them (by someone or something). Some argue that active voice is more muscular, direct, and succinct, passive voice flabbier, more indirect, and wordier. If you want your words to seem impersonal, indirect, and noncommittal, passive is the choice, but otherwise, active voice is almost invariably likely to prove more effective.

When writing in the passive voice: 1) the subject is vague; 2) the subject appears after the object; 3) the use of verb phrases and linking verbs (helping verbs) such as was, there was, there are or there is are required.

For example:

  1. The book was put on the shelf. [Note] We don’t know who put the book on the shelf.
  2. The book was put on the shelf by John. [Note] The subject is at the end of the sentence.
  3. There are just a few books remaining.

The active voice doesn’t require a linking verb or a verb phrase:

  1. John put the book on the shelf. (2 less words than above)
  2. Just a few books remain. (2 less words than above)

Change verbs from progressive to simple tense

The progressive tense shows continuous action. This action presents with verbs like begin/began or start/started, or with verb phrases like to be, plus a verb participle such as watching or watched.

When you write in simple tense you put the focus on the active verb and can eliminate the helping verb, which is usually was. Notice how much stronger the action is in the revised sentences:

  1. He was watching the game. [Revised] He watched the game.
  2. He started to wash the car. [Revised] He washed the car.

Avoid using empty expressions

Another way to reduce word count is to eliminate empty expressions. These examples state the obvious:

In my opinion
I believe
It seems
From my viewpoint
I recall
Needless to say

In a way [ahem], they lessen a statement’s impact. These read well in dialogue if this is a characteristic a writer wishes to portray in their character. Otherwise, the meaning of a sentence does not change when they are left out.

Tight writing helps you get published

Focus on the concept of more information and less filler; tight writing. Anything less than this will remain unread by an agent. You’ll know you’ve achieved this when not one word can be removed without changing the meaning. Make every word count.

The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do. ~Thomas Jefferson

Suggestions for other ways to cut word count are encouraged.

Photo Credit: Craig Ward

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{ 6 comments }

Mike July 3, 2013 at 12:30 pm

Weasel words — I was trying to think of description to describe something that had been bothering me. This sort of fits. Wikipedia describes weasel words as “equivocating words and phrases aimed at creating an impression that something specific and meaningful has been said.”

Every time there is a tragedy somewhere, the media overuses phrases to the point that they’ve become trite and meaningless — to us, anyhow. One phrase in particular stands out.

We were watching a story on the evening news yesterday about the impact the loss of 19 firefighters was having on Prescott, Arizona. It’s a terrible tragedy, for sure, but my point is about the reporting. Before the anchor and field reporter got very far into it, I snidely commented, “Close-knit community.” Sure enough, near the end of the news piece, the reporter made some comment that included “close-knit community.” It happens nearly every time something bad happens to U.S. communities away from the urban centers.

That phrase may not be weasel words, but it’s trite, meaningless, and, at least this time, predictable.

I’m going to stop here, but I think I’m going to expand on this further in a blog post for this weekend, probably on Sunday, and probably with a link back to this post.
Mike´s last blog post ..Territorial Days.

Davina July 5, 2013 at 6:03 pm

Hi Mike.

Yes, I know exactly what you mean. Unfortunately, I feel this phrase also becomes melodramatic, which in this case is a contradiction to its meaning. And then we hear other words, which are overused to evoke dramatic effect, which I imagine a lot of folk have learned to gloss over. Mind-numbing.

I look forward to reading your post. If you do decide to link back to this post, thanks in advance!

Hilary July 7, 2013 at 1:52 am

Hi Davina .. love Mike’s phrase “weasel words” … I hate time wasting in sentences – particularly spoken ones …of course I can’t think of them now!

– in the meantime

commentators and journalists are the worst -but I suppose they are in our face and we expect high quality from them .. not waffle –

– yet .. in this media frenzy age – we do not have time for more than sound bites – and sadly that’s what most people think and believe … they don’t take into account the shortness, the context, or know anything much about the subject …

Such is life – but I can’t say I’m happy … however I too don’t like too long philosophical discussions … my uncle was very very knowledgeable and I struggled with the time frame of listening … but on the other hand life was fairly crazy at that stage – I’d have liked him to live as my mother did, when those sorts of conversations would have been possible … now he too has gone.

I hope Mike does do his post .. cheers to you .. gorgeous weather here .. Hilary
Hilary´s last blog post ..One Year on … Communication Skills Reprieved, Lego played with … and London Underground …

Mike July 7, 2013 at 10:21 am

Post is up. As one journalist called it, it’s just lazy reporting.
Mike´s last blog post ..Close-Knit — Weasel Words? or is it a cliché?

Davina July 9, 2013 at 9:21 am

Hi Hilary.

I like the phrase “weasel words” too. It’s very appropriate for this situation.

Journalists throw stories and words at us and it can become overwhelming. All those mixed emotions being stirred up by the words alone, perhaps taking us farther than we need to go. Does go to show how sensitive we are to words, doesn’t it? A good reminder for all of us to choose our words wisely. So often I catch myself speaking a phrase I use all too often, which only keeps me stuck in one specific mindset.

Mike has opened up a can of worms here. The imagination is having a field day :)

I understand what you’re saying about time being the essence. I too have found myself feeling impatient, listening to conversations where folk run in circles with what they’re trying to say; my pet peeve is when someone says the same thing two or three different ways. I suppose it’s just them rambling through their thoughts, trying to make some sense for themselves.

Hi again Mike.

Thank you for sharing the link to your post. I have read it this morning. It’s a good topic of conversation and since you’ve raised this point, I’ve noticed how often I use cliche phrases in my own conversation!!

Hilary July 9, 2013 at 10:31 am

Hi Mike – sorry been busy and haven’t got to your post yet – just got back from Oxford … and have things to do tomorrow …

I will get to come back – and must remember those cliches and weasel words … so much going on – I now can’t think!

Thanks Davina .. I’ll be back .. cheers Hilary
Hilary´s last blog post ..Harry Potter’s Graphic Art and Dyslexia … Lego and the fashion house Chanel …

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