Apart from having an effortlessly chic packing list, American author Joan Didion is renowned for her ruthless honesty and brevity. In the introduction to her collection Telling Stories, she writes about her first job, at Vogue, recalling her editor’s advice: “‘Give me a shock verb two lines in.’ ‘Prune it out, clean it up, make the point.’ Less was more, smooth was better, and absolute precision essential to the monthly grand illusion. Going to work for Vogue was, in the late 1950s, not unlike training with the Rockettes.”
In today’s age of endless emails, ‘pruning it out’ is just as important – and just as hard – as it’s always been. But few of us receive any Rockettes-style training along the way. Short of calling Joan for advice, try these simple pruning tricks to keep your writing chic and brief:
1. Be suspicious of adverbs
Adverbs are the words we use to modify other words – specifically, verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. They let us say ‘quite unpleasant’ instead of ‘rude’, ‘drove quite quickly’ instead of ‘hooned’, and ‘blueish yellow’ instead of ‘green’. For readers, they create a kind of mental fog. On the other hand, they’re a useful way to bury your own uncertainty in a cavalcade of fancy-sounding prose.
Adverbs often end in ‘-ly’ but the most common offenders are ‘very’, ‘so’, ‘quite’, ‘just’ and ‘rather’. Next time you’re writing an email, notice whether you’re using them to buffer or apologise: ’I’m just asking’, ‘I’m fairly sure’. In fact, there’s an app for that.
2. Hunt down prepositions
Lots of prepositions in a sentence are a clue that it could be much shorter. Find and destroy. Prepositions are the words we use to link through to nouns and noun phrases. The most common offenders are ‘of’, ‘to’, ‘in’, ‘on’, ‘with’ and ‘by’. They can create mental loops for readers. ‘The baristas of Melbourne have too much hair on their faces’ has two prepositional loops. Try ‘Melbourne’s baristas have too much facial hair’. True. ‘To help us respond to you faster, please assist us by providing more information about your enquiry’ becomes ‘To help us respond faster, please tell us more’. Confidence incarnate.
3. Revive zombie nouns
Zombie nouns are where verbs and adjectives go to die. Their official name is ‘nominalisations’. Grammarian Helen Sword gave them their spookier moniker in a now-famous 2012 New York Times editorial: “Take an adjective (implacable) or a verb (calibrate) or even another noun (crony) and add a suffix like ity, tion or ism. You’ve created a new noun: implacability, calibration, cronyism. Sounds impressive, right?”
Her point is that sentences are much shorter and more human when their real action isn’t buried in a noun. Instead, use what Joan Didion’s editor would call a ‘shock verb’. ‘We’ll focus on adaptation’ becomes ‘We’ll adapt’; ‘Consideration will be given to the provision of snacks’ becomes ‘We’ll consider providing snacks.’
As Helen says, “The proliferation of nominalisations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.” Translation: “Writers who overload their sentences with nominalisations tend to sound pompous and abstract.” You can find and revive your zombie nouns using her online tool, The Writer’s Diet.
4. Say it out loud
Why do things become strangely passive the moment we stop talking and start writing?
Here’s an example from Kenneth Roman and Joel Raphaelson’s much-loved guide, Writing That Works: “One office worker meets another in the hall. ‘Ben,’ she says. ‘If you need more manuals, just ask for them.’ But let the same person write the message and they pad it out with lots of big words: ‘Should the supply of manuals sent you not be sufficient to meet your requirements, application should be made to this office for additional copies.’”
To put it bluntly, speaking can be the best cure for puffy writing.
If you’d love to pick up some more tips in person, close that computer and grab a ticket to the first NIDAnights workshop in Melbourne. Happening on Wednesday 15 November, The Active Voice will be a fun, 1.5-hour session presented by writing studio The Good Copy in collaboration with the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), at the new NIDA Melbourne studios. Wine and writing advice: the perfect combination. Book here.