4 Ways to Make Every Word Count

Getting the full value out of every word you write is especially important when it comes to the short story. The key is to recognize the power of a single well-chosen word, and trust it to do its work. As a rule, the more economically you use language, the more powerfully you will deliver your message. Here are four techniques to help you make each word count.

Both Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway cautioned writers against the careless use of modifiers. The challenge in eliminating redundant modifiers, however, is that familiarity breeds complacence. The more we hear and read certain word combinations, the more acceptable they begin to sound—and the more likely we are to use them unknowingly.
Here are some commonly used redundant modifiers:

climb up   
consensus of opinion
end result
future plan
important essentials
past memories
sudden crisis
terrible tragedy

When editing, look closely at your modifiers and make certain they don’t repeat the meanings of the words they modify. If they do, delete them. There’s no point in repeating the same idea twice.

When a word implies a category, you don’t need to write both the word and the category. Common redundant categories include:

at an early time
heavy in weight
of a strange type
round/square in shape
odd in appearance
unusual in nature

We know that round is a shape, just as heavy is a weight, so avoid including the categories of descriptors like these.

We English speakers operate in a language that is extraordinarily rich in both quantity of words and in synonyms. We can choose, for example, to offer someone either a hearty welcome or a cordial reception. The wording we choose depends on the tone and nuance we want to convey.

The problem with having such a plethora of choices is that we tend to pile words on rather than choosing one and sticking with it. Availing ourselves of too many of these possibilities when expressing a simple thought can lead to wordiness.

The following pairings are common in speech, where rhythm plays an especially important role in how we perceive language, but they should be avoided in most forms of writing:

any and all
first and foremost
hope and desire
one and only
over and done with
peace and quiet
true and accurate
various and sundry

It’s worth noting that legal writing has its own idioms of word pairs, such as aid and abet, cease and desist, full faith and credit and pain and suffering. But try not to use them outside of a legal context.

To be not unlike something is to resemble it. To be not in agreement is to disagree. To be not pleased is to be displeased. Avoid indirect statements using the word not. Instead, use it to express denial (“I did not do it”) or to create antithesis (“Do this, not that”).

CHANGE THIS: The alterations were not significant.
TO THIS: The alterations were insignificant.
CHANGE THIS: We didn’t break any laws.
TO THIS: We broke no laws.
CHANGE THIS: She wasn’t very nice to us.
TO THIS: She was rude to us.

As is often the case, however, emphasis depends as much on the sound of language as on a particular principle of economy. Of the following statements, which sounds more emphatic to you? “I am not happy about your coming home so late.” “I am unhappy about your coming home so late.” To my ear, the first statement is more emphatic and may be more practical.

Excerpted from Keys to Great Writing © 2000 by STEPHEN WILBERS, with permission from Writer’s Digest Books.

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