The Lucubrations of a Loquacious Ultracrepidarian

You didn’t really think I was going to write about that, did you? I do know a man with such tendencies, but this post is a listicle about writing more concisely. As the headline indicates, I need a refresher course on that subject from time to time. It’s not easy to break one’s addiction to “verbosity viscosity,” a practice I gravitate toward every time I put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). 

I just love words. And yet, like dark chocolate laced with hints of mint, too much of a good thing can yield blistering headaches. I wonder how many readers of TNL have gotten migraines because of my long-windedness. But that’s not the half of it. “When words are many, sin is not far behind” (Prov 10:19). Oh, dear. 

Most writers know we need to streamline our writing. Alas, the devil is in the details. Here are some specifics on what to look for, reworked from tips I’ve collected from Mark Nichol. I’m aiming them all at myself.

1. Remove Redundancy

Avoid double-teaming terms like “a period of one week,” “end result,” “free gift,” and “personal opinion.” Watch for phrases that echo the quality in question: “oval in shape,” “larger in size,” “shorter in duration,” and the like. Omit redundant words that are already implied as part of an abbreviated term, such as machine in “ATM machine.”

2. Reduce Phrases to Words

Replace a descriptive phrase following a noun with a one-word adjective that precedes the noun. For example,  “People who are experienced at traveling know better than to label their luggage,” can be revised to “Experienced travelers know better than to label their luggage.”

Similarly, a modifying phrase can be reduced to a simple adverb: “Sympathizing with her concerns, he nodded in response to her complaint,” is more concisely expressed as “He nodded sympathetically in response to her complaint.”

Delete extraneous phrases such as “which is” and “who were,” as shown here: “We drove down Lombard Street, which is considered the crookedest street in the world” is easily simplified to “We drove down Lombard Street, considered the crookedest street in the world.”

3. Omit Gratuitous Intensifiers and Qualifiers

Use adverbs that intensify or qualify in moderation: “They had an extremely unpleasant experience” isn’t accurate unless a subsequent explanation justifies the intensifier extremely. Additionally, “I was somewhat taken aback” isn’t necessarily an improvement on “I was taken aback.”

4. Expunge Expletives

No, we’re not talking about swear words here but grammatical expletives. “There is” or “there are” is a weak way to start a sentence. “There is a telling passage toward the end of the story” lacks the focus of (and the more vivid verb in) the sentence, “A telling passage occurs near the end of the essay.”

5. Negate Nominalizations

“The report gave an analysis of the accident” uses a phrase where a single word suffices. (This is known as a nominalization, or smothering a verb.) When you see a “(verb) a/an (noun)” construction, convert the noun into a verb and replace the phrase with it. In this case, “The report analyzed the accident” is the more concise result. As with deletion of expletives, a stronger verb is an additional benefit.

6. Delete Superfluous Phrases

“At the present time,” “for all intents and purposes,” and “in the event that” are just a few of many meaningless phrases that clutter sentences. Trim them to tighten your writing.

7. Avoid Clichés

Likewise, “face the music,” “litmus test,” “tried and true” and other timeworn phrases add nothing to your writing but words; they’re useful only for padding a word count, but instructors and editors (and readers) will notice.

8. Eschew Euphemisms

Generally, words that disguise concepts degrade language, which is all about expressing, not repressing, meaning. For example, “collateral damage,” in reference to warfare (and, by extension, to all interpersonal relationships), invites derision. However, use of some euphemisms, such as those for human disabilities, is a well-meaning effort to preserve the dignity of the disabled.

I’m quite certain I’ll never not be verbose, but if I implement these tips, maybe I’ll be less viscous (or molassesy). Or, to switch the metaphor, I’ll probably keep on serving up word salads in my writing, but I’ll try to do so with reduced-calorie dressing from now on. 

Image Credits: have-a-word.com; communiquepr.com; 1freewallpapers.com.

Random Thoughts for One Week before Christmas

1. Certain kinds of cookie dough are so delicious, it’s a wonder we put them in the oven to bake them at all. I’d be o.k. with going halfsies on each batch. That is, bake 50 percent of the lump, and then just eat the other half as it is. Or put the remaining half in vanilla ice cream to make a DIY DQ Blizzard. Either way, pray against salmonella because of the eggs, right? 

2. Our dough for the chocolate chip and sugar cookies is now mixed and refrigerating. Next up is the mixing of snickerdoodles and peanut butter cookies, but I need to go to Lititz, PA to get some Wilbur buds to top off the PB cookies. (Hersey Kisses are good, but Wilbur buds are in a league of their own.) I’m fairly certain I won’t be able to restrain myself and buy only Wilbur buds while I’m in their store.

3. What is it about hitting the “Publish” button on a WordPress post that suddenly enables you to see all your typos? It’s hard enough to be a writer, but being a writer with perfectionistic tendencies is intolerable sometimes. Is there any medication for this disorder? On the other hand, if we don’t wrestle with our work the way Jacob wrestled with God, we may not be writers at all. Stephen King was right when he said, “Some stories cry out to be told in such loud voices that you write them just to shut them up.” But that means our first drafts will always be messy. Just like the kitchen when we’re making Christmas cookies. So what? The payoff is right around the corner, so go ahead and make a jolly mess!

4. Speaking of writing, the metaphor I use for my own process is “sculpture.” I plop down some clay and then keep turning it and chiseling it until I see something resembling what I’m trying to say. It takes a lot of work and patience to smooth out the rough edges. And sometimes it doesn’t work at all, so I just wad up the lump and start over. To my fellow writers honing your craft, this is tough, so you have my admiration. The key is to get started. As James Thurber once said, “Don’t get it right, just get it written.” We can always go back and polish it later. Likewise, Margaret Atwood has said, “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” So, blob it down and then start chiseling. 

5. A lawyer friend of mine thought I overstated my case when I claimed that Shiphrah and Puah lied to Pharoah about why they didn’t throw the Hebrew boys into the Nile, and God seemed o.k. with it. I pushed back on the pushback, arguing that the contents of what the women said may have been true as far as it went, but they weren’t completely forthright with the Egyptian king when he asked them why they defied his edict. The real reason they didn’t kill the babies was because “they feared the Lord” (Exod 1:17). In other words, they didn’t tell Pharaoh “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” something I don’t think I could get away with in a courtroom.

6. That conversation by text led to a fascinating exchange about Rahab, too, so I raised the question: Since disinformation is a tool of national security, can a conscientious Christian work for the CIA? Similarly, what about people hiding Jews in their homes during the Holocaust and denying it to the authorities? Are deceptions like that ever morally justified? If not, why all the accolades in Scripture for Rahab? I’m still processing this myself, and we’re going to hash it out together over dinner next year. There are difficult and intertwining questions in both of these ethical conundrums. Each of us is open to persuasion, and we both appreciate the sharpening.

7. Michael Bruce (1746-1767) was a Scottish poet and hymn writer. He had a good word that might apply to anyone who may be experiencing a blue Christmas this year: “In every pang that rends the heart / the Man of Sorrows has a part; / he sympathizes with our grief, / and to the sufferer sends relief.” May it be so for those who are hurting right now.

8. I’m not sure I’m a fan of online learning for elementary school children. When they grow up and become parents themselves, they won’t be able to tell their children they had to walk up hill to school. Both ways. In the snow. During a blizzard. In sub-zero temperatures. Sheesh, no one should ever be deprived of the opportunity to share that boast with their children.

9. Dave Rubin has an interesting idea: “Suspend the salaries of all politicians until the country re-opens. We’ll be open in five minutes.” I’ll just leave that here.

10. Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease. Every time I get frustrated living with someone who has it, I start thinking about how much harder it must be for the person who actually has the condition. We’re doing the best we can, and God is giving us daily grace. It’s part of my spiritual formation, but it can be challenging. “Breath of heaven hold me together.” 

11. Albert Schweitzer gave the world a lot to think about. While there’s plenty of stuff in his theological corpus I couldn’t endorse, I can wholeheartedly amen this sentiment: “At times our own light goes out / And is rekindled by a spark from another person. / Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude / Of those who have lighted the flame within us.” A few precious faces come to mind in this regard, and I am grateful for each one.

12. Santa has come to our house already, but baby Jesus has not. That’s by design. Only one more week until we celebrate (again) the birth of Immanuel, “God with us.”

Be blessed and have a great weekend!