Re. Shortening text

Subject: Re. Shortening text
From: geoff-h -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA
Date: Tue, 16 Jan 1996 13:11:44 -0600

Cathy Quinones asked for tips on how to shorten writing. My
favorite: hire a good editor! (Yes, those of you who know
me from copyediting-l will detect a conflict of interest
<grin>)

Here's a quick and incomplete list:
1. Replace passive voice with active voice. (Almost always
shortens text.) Similarly, cleanse your text of most forms
of the verb "to be": "something was making me sick" thus
becomes "something sickened me". (Watch out for all forms
of "made", "got", "became", etc., as many of these indicate
phrases that you can replace with a verb.)

2. Kill off any adjectives and adverbs you encounter, then
reread the sentence to see if it's still comprehensible; if
not, replace the modifier with something helpfully
specific.

3. Use plural forms instead of dubious gender references or
tortuous s/he inclusive forms. ("Readers prefer clarity
because they..." rather than "The reader prefers clarity
because he [he or she etc.]...")

4. Use simple, common words rather than longer, more
impressive words. This is a "short" list of suggestions,
not a "length-minimized" or even a "concise" list. (The
latter doesn't improve length enough to justify replacing
it with short.) DON'T create acronyms just for the sake of
shortening text; they usually confuse readers more than the
length reduction benefits readers.

5. Use ***appropriate*** jargon, particularly where you
know that the jargon communicates as effectively as a
longer explanatory phrase. "Limnology" is better than "the
study of lakes etc." for the right audience. Appropriate
jargon _does_ include universally known acronyms such as
DNA, MS DOS, etc., but first you have to know what acronyms
your audience already understands; it's the new ones that
pose problems.

6. Recognize phrases that you can replace with single
words. "In order to" usually means "to", "on an objective
basis" usually means "objectively", etc. (And then do the
adjective/adverb test I recommended earlier to see if any
modifiers that result from this process are redundant.)

But beware the urge to chop more than you really need to. I
once paraphrased a joke by Leo Rosten to demonstrate the
problem with overshortening text. For those who are
interested, here's the "doing this from memory" version:

Consider the proposed sign "fresh fish for sale daily".
"Daily" is obviously unnecessary because the fish could
hardly be fresh otherwise. Similarly, "fresh" is redundant
because who would sell (or buy) unfresh fish? The "for
sale" note is also useless, since you wouldn't be
displaying them if they weren't for sale. What's left,
"fish", seems pretty terse and explicit, except that anyone
walking past your shop will see (or smell) that you're
selling fish. Voila! Careful editing has saved you the cost
of a sign. [FeFeFeFeFe]

--Geoff Hart @8^{)}
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

Disclaimer: If I didn't commit it in print in one of our
reports, it don't represent FERIC's opinion.


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