Editing for Clear Style

"In a rough draft, we are rarely economical:  We repeat ourselves, we belabor the obvious, we cushion our thoughts in excess language. ... Long sentences are not necessarily wordy, nor are short sentences always concise. A sentence is wordy if it can be tightened without loss of meaning." (Diana Hacker, The Bedford Handbook 2004)

In Revising Prose, Richard Lanham criticizes writers for composing sentences that “have been assembled from strings of prepositional phrases glued together by that all-purpose epoxy ‘is’” (3).  He provides a five-step process for removing those excess words, and proposes a formula for calculating the “lard factor” of words you’ve removed. We’ve adapted his process and changed the name to "cutting the fluff." Challenge yourself to see how much fluff you can remove!

The following strategies will help you learn to cut the fluff. Use the process at the end of the document ("Cut the Fluff Exercise") to edit and trim your writing, and then calculate how much fluff you removed. Remember that even professional writers such as Stephen King cut up to 20% of their drafts during editing. 

1. Replace “to be” Verbs

If you have time for nothing else, replacing the “to be” verbs gives the biggest impact to your writing's strength. “To be” verbs (is, as, are, am, was, were, been, being) indicate a state of existence and result in lifeless prose. Use stronger, descriptive verbs.

Wordy: A high fat, high-cholesterol diet is bad for your heart.
Better: A high fat, high-cholesterol diet harms your heart.

Wordy: This class is in need of a long relaxing weekend.
Better: This class needs a long relaxing weekend.

2. Tighten Prepositional Phrases

Prepositional phrases are often overused, causing longer than needed sentences. See our handout "A Short List of Prepositions" to identify the prepositions in your writing and then eliminate or rephrase.

Wordy: The students of Miami University often participate in study abroad programs.
Better: Miami University students often study abroad.

Wordy: In this memo is an example of the use of public opinion polls in America.
Better: This memo includes an example of America’s use of public opinion polls.
Even Better: This memo exemplifies America’s public opinion poll usage.

3. Cut Empty or Wordy Phrases and Modifiers

Empty phrases add nothing to meaning, and you can simply cut them. In the example below, the writer's opinion is already implied and therefore unnecessary to state. Examples of empty phrases include:

  • In my opinion
  • I think that
  • It seems that
  • One must admit

Wordy: In my opinion, our current immigration policy is misguided on several counts.
Better: Our current immigration policy is misguided on several counts.

Replace wordy phrases with one word carrying the same meaning:

At all times ➤ always

At the present time ➤ now/today

At that point in time ➤ then

Due to the fact that ➤ because

For the purpose of ➤ for

In order to ➤ to

In spite of the fact that ➤ although

In the event that ➤ if

Replace these vague modifiers with stronger verbs or nouns, or simply remove them: absolutely, awfully, basically, definitely, extremely, literally, really, truly, very, amazing, awesome, fine, great, incredible.

Wordy: The housing situation can have a really significant impact on the social aspect of a student’s life.
Better: Housing can strongly influence a student’s social life.

Avoid using nouns ending in –ion.  Changing these nominalizations to their verb form creates more direct, active language.

Wordy: A conclusion was reached that pH determined the rate.
Better: We concluded that pH determined the rate.

Wordy: A demonstration of the effect of pH was performed.
Better: We demonstrated the effect of pH.

4. Avoid Expletives

You can search for expletives in Microsoft Word and then rephrase them by putting the subject first: there is, there are, it is, it was, what is, what was

Wordy: There are many people who fear success because they believe they don’t deserve it.
Better: Many people fear success because they believe they don’t deserve it.

Wordy: It is necessary for presidential candidates to perform well on television.
Better: Presidential candidates need to perform well on television.

Wordy: It does not appear to be an issue that defines the parties.
Better: Apparently, the issue does not define the parties.

5. Use active, not passive, voice

Passive voice hides the “doer” of the action and, thus, often hides responsibility. Active voice is clearer and more direct. (Note:  You may want to use the passive voice to hide the "doer" in certain situations such as when referring to children, victims of crime, whistleblowers, or other sensitive circumstances.)

Passive: It was decided to lay off 10 percent of the company’s employees.
Active: The Executive Board decided to lay off 10 percent of the employees.

Passive: Women were granted the right to vote.
Active: Women fought for the right to vote.

Simplify sentences

Wordy: Kennedy, who was only the second Roman Catholic to be nominated for the presidency by a major party, had to handle the religion issue in a delicate manner.
Better: Kennedy, only the second Roman Catholic nominated for the presidency by a major party, had to handle the religion issue delicately.

Reduce clauses to phrases, phrases to single words

Clause to Phrase:

Wordy: We took a side trip to Monticello, which was the home of Thomas Jefferson.
Better: We took a side trip to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson.

Phrase to single words

Wordy: For her birthday, we gave Megan a vest made of silk.
Better: For her birthday, we gave Megan a silk vest.

Cutting the Fluff Exercise

Note: Before starting, count the number of words in your original document and save a copy of it. For each of the steps, refer to the explanations and examples above.

Six Steps to Cut the Fluff

  1. Circle or highlight the “to be” verbs. Replace them with more descriptive verbs where possible.
  2. Circle or highlight the prepositions. Eliminate OR turn the phrase into a modifier.
  3. Cut empty phrases and modifiers.
  4. Identify expletives (there is, it is)—often at the beginning of the sentence—then rewrite the sentence.
  5. Almost always: replace passive voice with active voice.
  6. Simplify sentences/reduce clauses and phrases

Formula to calculate the fluff factor (FF)

  1. Count the number of words in your document and write it down.
  2. Using the strategies on this handout, revise your writing to make it more concise, more clear, and more vivid. On the first page:
    • Circle the “to be” verbs
    • Square the prepositions
    • Underline wordy phrases
  3. Now, count the number of words in your revised document.
  4. Determine the number of deleted words: subtract the number of words in the revised document from the number of words in the original.
  5. Calculate the percent deleted: divide the number of deleted words by the number of words in the original, then multiply by 100.

Example

Original: After reviewing the research and in the light of the relevant information found within the context of the conclusions, we feel that there is a definite need for some additional research to more specifically pinpoint our advertising and marketing strategies. (38 words)

Revision 1: The conclusions of previous research suggest we need more research to pinpoint our advertising and marketing strategies.
(FF = 53%; 38-18=20 divided by 38 = .53 x 100 = 53%).

Revision 2: Previous research suggests we need more research to pinpoint our marketing and advertising strategies.
(FF = 60%).

But, be careful. Don’t cut so much that you lose necessary information:

Revision 3: Previous research has failed to pinpoint our marketing and advertising strategies.
(FF = 71%, but the writer lost the vital point of needing more research).

Final version: Previous research has failed to pinpoint our marketing and advertising strategies. We need to know more.
(FF = 58%, with all the relevant ideas included).