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Check out 'Ask Joan', a video blog where writer and teacher Joan Dempsey answers writer's questions about the art and craft of writing and revision.

Cut Clutter from Your Writing

Joan Dempsey

The following post is adapted from one of the lessons in Revision Essentials: 15 Self-Editing Skills Every Writer Needs to Master. In this five-week, self-paced course, which begins whenever you wish after you enroll, you'll master the 15 essential self-editing skills necessary for creating publishable work. Ensure that your writing is as good as it can be - apply 15 tools to avoid or correct the most common mistakes routinely made by writers. LEARN MORE NOW.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
— William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

We all write.

Stories. Novels. Biographies. Histories. Memoirs. Blog posts. White papers. Grants. Letters. Articles.

When we write, we sometimes feel uncertain. One way we cope is by adding qualifiers to our sentences.

Not the best idea ...

Like this:

I have a bit of a tendency to add rather unnecessary qualifiers to my sentences.

Wait. Let me revise:

I have a tendency to add unnecessary qualifiers to my sentences.

What’s a qualifier?

  • rather
  • very
  • a little
  • pretty
  • sort of
  • somehow
  • somewhat
  • kind of
  • quite
  • too
  • in a sense
  • type of
  • really
  • basically
  • for all intents and purposes
  • definitely
  • actually
  • generally
  • specific
  • particular

“These,” wrote Strunk & White in The Elements of Style, “are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”

Prune out the qualifiers to strengthen your prose!

Follow the advice of William Zinsser in On Writing Well:

Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.

Think deeply about the meaning of words.

Don’t write "very first time" or "very last time." It’s either the first time, or it isn’t. It’s either the last time, or it isn’t. Don’t write that the retreat was rather boring or very bland. Words like boring and bland nicely convey their own meaning.

According to Zinsser, by adding qualifiers you “dilute your style and your persuasiveness.”

"The larger point,” he continues, “is one of authority. Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of the reader’s trust. Readers want a writer who believes in himself and in what he is saying. Don’t diminish that belief. Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.”

Now it’s your turn.

Only by practicing will you grow adept at recognizing when you use unnecessary qualifiers in your own work. To get the most out of what you've just read, try this:

Write 1-2 sentences with too many qualifiers in each. Use the list above if you wish, or discover your own qualifiers. What was the experience like? (Lots of people find it amusing.) Share your sentences in the comments area below.

Also, think about when you might want to use qualifiers. When might using them be appropriate? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Do you worry that your writing isn't any good?

Check out the free Revise With Confidence Video Series. Click on the video below to learn more.

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