Improve Your Writing – Beware Little Timidities

The following post is adapted from one of the lessons in IMPROVE YOUR WRITING:  Ten Essential Tools for Streamlining Your Sentences, a self-paced online course facilitated by writer, teacher and former GLP Director Joan Dempsey. Joan employed the 8-Steps of Design in the creation of this course.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

~ William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

We all write.

Reports. E-mails. White papers. Grants. Letters. Blog posts. Articles. Briefs. Stories. Novels. Biographies. Histories. Memoirs …

When we write, we sometimes feel uncertain. One way we cope is to add qualifiers to our sentences.

Like this:

I have a bit of a tendency for adding rather unnecessary qualifiers to my sentences.

Wait. Let me revise:

I have a tendency for adding unnecessary qualifiers to my sentences.

What’s a qualifier?

  • rather
  • very
  • a little
  • pretty
  • sort of
  • somehow
  • somewhat
  • kind of
  • quite
  • too
  • in a sense
  • type of
  • really
  • basically
  • for all intents and purposes
  • definitely
  • actually
  • generally
  • specific
  • particular

“These,” write Strunk & White in The Elements of Style, “are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”

Prune out the qualifiers to strengthen your prose!

Follow the advice of William Zinsser in On Writing Well:

Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.

Think deeply about the meaning of words.

Don’t write “very first time” or “very last time.” It’s either the first time, or it isn’t. It’s either the last time, or it isn’t. Don’t write that the retreat was rather boring or very bland. Words like boring and bland nicely convey their own meaning.

According to Zinsser, by adding qualifiers you “dilute your style and your persuasiveness.”

“The larger point,” he continues, “is one of authority. Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader’s trust. Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don’t diminish that belief. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.”

Now it’s your turn.

Don’t forget that only by practicing will you grow adept at recognizing when you use unnecessary qualifiers in your own work. To get the most out of what you’ve just read, try this:

Write 1-2 sentences with too many modifiers in each. Use the list above if you wish, or discover your own modifiers. Post your sentences in the comments section below.

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Joan Dempsey is a Certified Dialogue Education Practitioner, teacher and author.  You can join Joan at IMPROVE YOUR WRITING:  Ten Essential Tools for Streamlining Your Sentences, a self-paced online course, available immediately upon registration. Want to learn more?  Check out this video.

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