4 Tips and 4 Tools for Tightening Your Prose

by C.K. MacLeod

Tighten by hand only

Want to tighten your prose and make your writing easier to understand? Here are four ways and four tools to help you do that — all for free!

1. Omit needless phrases.

Authors sometimes use phrases such as "owing to the fact that" or "in order to" like condiments. Often, your meaning won't change if you trim these phrases. For example, “owing to the fact that” can become “because,” and "in order to" can become "to."

Refer to this list of offenders and some solutions for fixing them. Use the search and replace function in your word processing software to find these phrases in your writing.

2. Omit needless words.

Authors tend to pepper their prose with filler words. If you use Microsoft Word, you can run the NeedlessWords macro, and the macro will highlight potentially unnecessary words. In this macros for beginners post, Carla Douglas offers suggestions for what to do with those highlighted words.

Never used a macro before? This 20-Minute Macro Course will have you up and running with Macros in no time.

If macros scare you, or you don’t have Microsoft Word, try the Hemingway Editor. It’ll help you to hunt down adverbs, another kind of needless word.

3. Shorten your sentences.

Long sentences make sentences harder to read. The solution? Create two short sentences from the long one, when it makes sense to do so.
The Hemingway Editor will spot long sentences by identifying them as “hard to read” and “very hard to read.” It also provides you with readability statistics on your writing. You can buy the downloadable version of the Hemingway Editor for under $10 USD. Try the online version for free.

Very hard-to-read sentences are highlighted in red
Very hard-to-read sentences are highlighted in red

4. Use easy-to-understand words.

You can use the PlainLanguage macro to identify hard-to-understand words so you can swap them out with a reader-friendly word. The Hemingway Editor will also highlight words that are difficult for many readers to understand, and it will suggest a replacement!

There are many ways to make your writing more readable. A handful of tools will help you to accomplish this task quickly.

Adapted from a post from Beyond Paper Editing.

Image by Joshua Crauswell

4 thoughts on “4 Tips and 4 Tools for Tightening Your Prose”

  1. While every word should count in writing, and there is definitely something to be said for tightening up your work, wholeheartedly relying on the tools you've mentioned will strip every bit of individuality out of a writer's words and dumb the writing down to... I don't know what---the level of a fourth grader? The examples shown in the Hemingway Editor photo are not "too long" or "too difficult" at all, in my humble opinion! There's nothing wrong with either example.

    Yes, trimming excess words is important. But don't go overboard. 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comments, Susan. As with any writing tool, you have to exercise judgement. Hemingway will help you to write clearly and directly, in plain language, as it were (see http://www.plainlanguage.org/ for information about the plain language movement). Does that make sense for the kind of writing you're doing? You'll need to decide.

      Let's use Hemingway's extra-long sentence highlighter as an example. Is the tool telling you you have too many extra-long sentences? Extra-long sentences require more from the reader and can definitely affect readability. That matters for some kinds of writing. Having said that, it's okay to have the occasional "long sentence" because a well-placed longer sentence can make your writing sound better. The goal is not to do away with all long sentences; it's to consider if your writing would be better if you broke some long sentence into two.

      The same is true for the other four Hemingway "tests." You don't have to apply everything that a writing tool suggests. But it's amazing what you can learn about you're writing if you're open to considering what a tool is telling you.

  2. Almost every rookie writer tends to overdo with adjectives and extraordinary words. It is better not to sate your writing with pseudo-intellectual words like floccinaucinihilipilification (if you aren't Jacob Rees-Mogg). Besites, in this article http://thewritepractice.com/better-writer-now/ 7 examples of words which should be omitted. To tighten the prose, it is also good not to compare your work to others (the desire to add something may overtake you). For better writing, try not to imitate or plagiarize. Unfortunately, it may happen unintentionally. So if you don't want your reader to close the book on the first page, check your writing with plagiarism checker, for example Unplag https://unplag.com/. I don't want to sound as a dumpy cat, but we need to contribute something new to our society! Be sure, the uniqueness, revealing all of the beauty of writing, will fascinate your reader.

    1. Maurice, thanks for the tips and helpful links!

      According to Richard Posner, author of the Little Book of Plagiarism, plagiarism isn't something that happens by accident. If you're curious about why that may be, the article, Stop Thief! Writers and Plagiarism unpacks this idea.

      Having said that, while editing, I do use a plagiarism checker to check sections of text that I wonder about. 🙂

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