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Don’t Let Wordiness Overwork Your Readers

When I was a publisher’s editor, I needed a reliable pool of experienced freelance writers. My B2B publications covered hot and often complex topics. And my short deadlines left little time to rewrite or overhaul articles.

 I would read countless writing samples, and then choose the best authors. But after signing them on, I spent much of my editorial duties condensing their articles.

Copyedited samples often mask writers’ flaws. Wordiness is one. Prepositional phrases, modifiers and “passive voice” sentence structures add unnecessary words to text. The result is a convoluted message that slows down the reader.

The “passive voice” typically uses excessive propositions (“by,” “of,” “for”) and articles (“a,” “an,” “the”). Take this sentence: The regulatory mandates were passed by the Congress through OSHA to keep workers from inadvertently injuring themselves on the job. Here’s the rewrite in the preferred “active voice”: Congress passed OSHA workplace safety regulations.

The rewrite reduced a 20-word sentence to six words, with all key information intact. “Workplace” replaces “workers” and “on the job.” “Safety” replaces “inadvertently injuring…” And since “regulations” are “mandates,” why use both words?

The “active voice” is a direct, take-charge writing style. It typically follows the simple noun-then-verb format, which suits business communication. Think of the “active voice” as the doer and “passive voice” as the one being done in.

The cost

  • Whenever editors cut an article – sometimes in half — they’ve overpaid the writer by as much as 100 percent. The smaller an editor’s budget, the smaller the writing pool. Editors will insist that you write efficiently —  to the word count — or drop you from their pools.
  • Extensive copyediting is costly time-wise, as are author rewrites.  When left with a 600-word gap to fill in my publication, I had to look through articles editors refer to as “in the can” (edited but unpublished) to find a suitable replacement. Time is oxygen to deadline-driven editors.

 Some Solutions

  • If you struggle with wordiness, write your draft and then set it aside. Go back and reread it. Find prepositions, adjectives, adverbs, and other words you can cut. As you rewrite, simpler, more powerful sentences emerge.
  •  When hiring or contracting writers, don’t rate their abilities on published clips, which were most likely copyedited. Instead, give them fresh assignments to complete.
  • As an editor or copyeditor, be honest with writers about wordiness and help them correct it. I included a section on wordiness in a guideline I created for the freelance writers I hired.

©Valerie Bolden-Barrett

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