Making Your Text Shorter

This might seem like an insane topic for a college English course. After all, we keep struggling to find more to say so that we can meet the minimum length requirement for these essays. Ask yourself, though, is BIG always the same as GOOD? Haven't there been times when a SMALL something was really exactly what was needed? Ask yourself, too, how often you have become bored reading a piece that simply cannot get around to stating the main point.

Times when your essay might really be better if it's shorter:

  1. You wandered off topic and gave us a "general brain dump" of everything you could think of.
  2. You padded out your paper with story after story and example after example instead of actually explaining things.
  3. You got wordy.
  4. You piled up artsy "purple prose" that concentrates on showing off, not on actually showing.

Cures

1. Repeat to yourself: "Volume isn't everything."

Sit quietly for a moment and ask yourself what is the main point you want to make in this piece. Ask what, exactly, you want to do to the reader—and be as specific as possible. If your answer is "write a paper" or "tell about my mother," keep thinking until you get something really specific. Then, when you get an answer, go back through your paper and ruthlessly cross out everything that doesn't contribute to that main purpose.

Here's a brief sample of a paper that really needed that kind of surgery:

I am a parent of two beautiful girls, Terra, a 17 year old typical teenager, and Alexus an 18 month old ornery toddler. I feel that I am a good father, far better than how my mother raised me.
First of all, my mom is 52 years old. She stands 5' 2", 155 lbs., with brown hair and blue eyes. Her name is Ida. One would categorize her personality as vulnerable and pessimistic. Ida's vocabulary reminds one of a truck driver, every sentence containing curse words. My mother likes to find fault in every situation.

Why did we get the physical description of Ida? Can't a short, chubby woman with brown hair be a good parent? What about the pessimism and fault-finding? Is that what made her a poor parent? Or is it the strong language? It's all just space-filler: None of that description does anything to move the point forward.

2. Focus on your best material.

TV ads that sell products for $19.95 always close with, "But wait! There's still more!" The people who write those ads always seem to feel that their product won't sell itself without the added freebie.

Don't copy them. If one really great example, illustration, or description will do the work, why add a second? Besides, your reader will remember one well-crafted example better than a list of them. Figure out which one is best, and save the others for another piece of writing.

3. Think "tighter" not "shorter."

Some wordy phrases are actually quite short, but they are the classics that say the same thing redundantly:

Some of these redundancies are regional colloquialisms. Nobody even stops to consider that "blue" is already a color and it's not necessary to point that out. Others are attempts to sound academic. None of them contribute to the effect of the paper.

Some traditional sentence-openers are just piles of words that postpone the inevitable moment when the writer must actually say something. Take them out.

Have the nerve to ask each word to do something valuable. Pay special attention to weak, empty intensifiers that really don't make anything clearer, more specific, or more intense:

4. Purple prose needs to go.

Purple prose is the name given to prose, or writing, that's just too flowery, too melodramatic—in short, too overdone. It has too many unnecessary adjectives and descriptive details. (Don't misunderstand me—descriptive detail is good as long as it's not overdone.)

There is no ultimate absolute definition of "purple". It's a subjective decision—part of the multi-faceted balancing act writers undertake. A lot would depend on the genre too—you'd get away with a lot more in say, the romance genre, than you would in the thriller genre or the expository essay.

But I think it's safe to say that any sentence including the phrase "rosy fingers of dawn" would qualify!

Watch out too for words which are too big or fancy. Sometimes you have to use a very specific word because you need an exactness of meaning. But most often you can use simpler words. (I often tell writing students that writing isn't about using fancy words, it's about using simple words bravely and honestly.)¹

Yes, we tell you to be specific and vivid when you describe things, but there's a difference between "vivid" and "overdone." Here's an example of purple prose:

Hermione gazed pensively across the moor, her bosom hanging low, like the menacing storm clouds above, while her tears mingled moistly with the miasmic mountain mist. The sound of distant thunder brought to her mind memories of the past, of a time when the world was young and she was blissfully carefree. She shrugged her shabbily shawled shoulders, and allowed a weary smile to loosen her lips as Sir Reginald apprehensively approached.

Isn't that terrible? Analyze the way it is written. Find out why it is so bad. You could discover that there are:

Of course, there's the obvious.

If your paper's just too long (and especially if this very long paper doesn't seem to have done its work yet), check your topic, purpose, and thesis. You really cannot solve the Middle East Crisis or trace the history of the world in three to five pages. (One of my students tried to do that sort of thing. She wanted to prove—in 500 words—that in the entire history of Christendom her local congregation was the only one who had interpreted the New Testament correctly.)

Remember these words as you choose your topic and write your thesis: focus, focus, focus.


¹Culleton, Tracy. "Purple Prose." Fiction Writers' Mentor. 29 Jul 2009 <http://www.fiction-writers-mentor.com/purple-prose.html>.

²The example and the following list are from: Barratt, Brian. "Purple Prose." The Brain Rummager. 29 Jul 2009 <http://home.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/purple_prose.htm>.