Writing Tip #1

Writing Tip #1

Eliminate “extra” words. Consider this sentence posted yesterday on CNN’s website:

“But his past recent record of overselling government action raised doubts over whether his commitments would be delivered.”


A good rule of thumb is that when a locution draws attention to itself because it feels like the writer was struggling to find the right words –thus distracting a reader from the text’s content –it’s badly written.

Our grand deception, the magic trick of writing, is to hide the machinery. All the sweat and hair-pulling that went into forging a good piece of writing goes invisible.

A friend of mine, Janet Wilson, Director of Bilingual Publications at Oxford University Press in Spain, once told me that if she finds herself thinking about the writer while reading, something’s wrong. In fiction, those awkward spots can even “interrupt the dream,” as some writers term it.

In the above CNN quote, the bit that snared me was “past recent record.” Maybe the collocation makes it jarring. “Recent past” sounds more natural than “past recent.” Would that sequence have been as viable (or more) without altering the meaning? Is this something the writer or editor troubled over? Looking at it and trying to decide, the solution –maybe obvious –came to me. Just delete “past.” It’s redundant. The idea of “past” is contained in both “recent” and “record.”

“… his recent record… ” is a normal, smooth locution that says it all without the dissonance. It’s also a great example of the Less is More principle, the second of the Three Cs of Writing (Be Clear, Concise & Concrete). I’ll discuss that principle more fully in Writing Tip #2. Meanwhile, the clean surgical removal of unnecessary words is an excellent way to make writing more streamlined and impactful.

Last note, sometimes in the laudable rush for journalists and others to get information out, mistakes and inelegant phraseology inevitably and understandably slip by. We’re all susceptible to that, even as we guard against it.

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