Does Your Writing Carry Water?
March 1, 2016
By Jessie Frank, Writing Tutor
Writing is hard. Writing well is even harder, especially considering all the elements that combine to make a reader step away from a piece thinking, "Wow, this was good writing." But what is good writing? Can we pin down what good writing looks like in simple terms when the criteria seems so extensive and maybe even subjective?
Writing, on the most basic level, is a tool used for communication. Whether we are communicating ideas, emotions, arguments, or rebuttals, the writer's first concern is that the reader simply understands the words written on the page. Yet, so often, writers try to sprinkle too many flavors onto their writing so that it becomes hard for the reader to taste the real meat of their content.
Writing is successful, then, when it communicates the writer's desired meaning to the reader. An excess of ineffective or unnecessary words within a sentence interfere with successful writing, and for this reason, "good" writing is economical and concise. It is straightforward and is delivered in easily digestible, bite-sized pieces for the reader. Adam Garfinkle explains in Political Writing: A Guide to the Essentials that every word within a given piece must serve some purpose saying, "every word must carry water" (942). Do the words we choose have planned function, or is their only role is to stamp ink onto the page, getting in the way of words that are dutifully trying to convey meaning?
It is important to remember as a writer that the less your reader has to work to understand your writing, the more successful your writing will be. Oftentimes, this means we need to go back to basics as writers. I think somewhere along the way in our journey as writers, many of us develop an aversion to the basic subject-verb-object sentence structure. If you were like me, you heard beautifully intriguing pieces of language like, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," or "Whose woods these are I think I know. /His house is in the village though; / He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow," and at some point, you decided a once sufficient, "Jane ran home" (S+V+O) sentence simply would not do. And as we seemingly outgrew these simple sentences, discarding them like ragged hand-me-downs, we simultaneously threw away the most sensical, bare-bones roadmap to writing we had at our disposal.
We can still strive to sound like the genius of Shakespeare and Frost, but we have to identify those places in our own writing where verbosity derails meaning. I learned in my Writing for the Media class last year that this emphasis placed on concision has practical roots: editors of newspapers literally could not afford to use the amount of ink needed to print long articles, so journalists had to learn to keep stories tight while skillfully delivering a complete story in interesting ways. Learning this helped me to conceptualize why, in writing, less can sometimes be more.
Before I offer two suggestions as to how to keep writing direct and effective, I should note that identifying wordiness in an essay will likely take place during your revision. However, you can still keep concision in mind even during the first draft of a given piece:
Say what you mean. Read a sentence you have written and concentrate carefully on your word choices. If you wrote "says" when you really meant "argues," revise, trying to make the words in your sentences as specific as possible so that your reader knows exactly what you are trying to communicate. Mark Twain argued that there is no such thing as a true synonym in the English language, that two words close in meaning still differ slightly in tone or connotation. "The difference between the right word and the almost right word," he argues, "is the difference between lightning and lightning bug." Pick your words with intention. Make sure they are targeting exactly what you wish to convey.
Don't be afraid to cut. Just because a sentence was initially written a certain way doesn't mean it was written in the most straightforward way. Think about Garfinkle's suggestion that words should carry water. Approach your writing sentence by sentence, deleting words that are not "full"-words that are doing no work to propel the sentence forward. The only purpose of these empty words is to fill space. Don't use twelve words to express something that could be written in four.
As you sculpt your writing to become more straightforward, be wary of over condensing. Being concise is about being effective. The Purdue OWL suggests, "concise writing does not always have the fewest words, but it always uses the strongest ones." Some thoughts will need to be fleshed out more than others, and sometimes a certain rhetorical strategy drives us to be rather liberal in our word choices. Carefully discern your rhetorical decisions as you work to make your writing concise.
One final note: if you are a lover of poetry or flowy, lyrical prose like me, do not fear. Avoiding verbosity does not mutually call for dull, unexciting language-writing can be both concise and beautiful. In fact, writing with an economic mind will force you to sift through language to find the absolute best words organized in the absolute best way to make your prose as intriguing-and clear- as possible.
For examples of how to transform wordy language into concise language, visit the Purdue OWL.