Guest post by Marcia Riefer Johnston (@MarciaRJohnston)
“Write when there is something that you know; and not before; and not too damned much after.” These wise words come to us from Ernest Hemingway, master of minimalism.
Wait. Did he minimize here? Consider this tighter version:
Write when you know something; and not before; and not too damned much after.
See what I did? I removed the be-verb (is). Fewer words. Same meaning. More impact. Who cares? Maybe no one. If you’re writing an email to your mom, the odd unnecessary word doesn’t cause anyone heartburn. It doesn’t interfere with comprehension. It doesn’t break anyone’s budget.
But if you’re writing a biography or if you’re part of a team creating white papers for a company, your text-tightening skills matter. You need to know how to make your writing concise, compelling, and—if that text will be translated—less costly to translate.
Let’s take a moment to look at the bottom line. Companies or publishers that translate into multiple languages can save staggering amounts of money by tightening text. For example, the amount of tightening I did on Hemingway’s sentence would cut the cost of translating 10,000 sentences—a fat book of essays—into twenty-five languages by nearly $200,000 (estimating translation cost, as many companies do, at about $0.25/word). For companies that deliver lots of content in lots of languages, even a ten-percent word-count reduction would save millions, or tens of millions, every year.
Even if your words never get translated, though, and you have no concerns over how much your words cost, you want to write concisely for readability. Only the most persistent readers put up with bloat.
How much tighter could you make your writing? Here’s one test.
Search for be-verbs. Is. Was. Am. Are. Were. Be. Being. Been. Don’t get me wrong; some be-verbs serve a sentence well. You don’t want to dump them all. For lots of examples of be-verbs you might want to keep, see the first chapter of my book, Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) .* Most be-verbs, though, weaken sentences.
Eradicating be-verbs makes such a difference, in fact, that I have created a bumper sticker that declares “Start seeing be-verbs” to anyone passing my rear end in a parking lot.**
I like that this technique—ferreting out be-verbs—requires no knowledge of grammar, no sentence analysis, and practically no time. For super speed, use your application’s Find function to blitz through your text, highlighting each be-verb and revising to zap most of them.
Try it. I think you’ll like it.
|Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) *Download this chapter as a free PDF: To Be or Not To Be.
* *Order your bumper sticker: Be-Verbs: The Bumper Sticker
About the Author
When Marcia Riefer Johnston was twelve, American Girl magazine printed her eight-paragraph story, “The Key,” and paid her $15. She has been writing ever since.
To share her love of writing, she has collected some one-of-a-kind essays into a book: Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them).
At Lake Forest College, she wrote one-act plays that were performed on the campus stage, learned from, and buried. She studied under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff in the Syracuse University creative-writing program. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University. She has done writing of all kinds for organizations of all kinds, from the Fortune 500 to the just plain fortunate.
A founding member of Mommas Against Drunk Commas (not really, because M-A-D-C), Marcia has written for the scholarly journal Shakespeare Quarterly, the professional journal Technical Communication, and the weekly newspaper Syracuse New Times. She used to write letters by the boxful. She has contributed posts to her daughter’s Peace Corps blog, texts to her son’s smartphone, and answers to her husband’s crossword puzzles. Her words have landed on billboards, blackboards, birthday cakes, boxes of eggs, and the back of her book. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Find out more about Marcia at http://howtowriteeverything.com.
Photo courtesy of adamr | Freedigitalphotos.net. Amazon links contain my affiliate code.