By David E. Sharp
Singing the national anthem before a big event is an honor. And vocalists take it seriously. But do you ever feel they take it too seriously? You’ve heard it. Talented singers want to make their mark. They imbue so much flourish into the Star-Spangled Banner the melody gets lost. Too much embellishment ruins the song.
We’ve all been victimized by contract language, accounting language, and other verbiage that leaves us reeling no matter how confident of a reader you are.
Writers can often become mired in Thesaurusitis. Prentention disguised in the cloak of variety. Sometimes, in the quest to avoid repetition, writers take a deep dive into the back shelves of the thesaurus. This isn’t a terrible idea but perhaps start with a look at the piece of writing as a whole.
It may be time to rewrite a sentence or paragraph. If you’re in need of synonyms, you may be in danger of repeating information. The fix isn’t fancier words but stronger writing.
It’s also easy to mistake information dumps as descriptions. Trite as it seems, the show don’t tell adage is an important one. We need to describe things all the while limiting how much we give to the reader. Twenty-dollar words can translate to pompous ass to a reader.
The Electric Company’s heart was in the right place, but not so much its writing advice.
Wordiness has an equal and opposite pitfall. When we decide our sentences are too plain, we dress them up. We string prepositional phrases like Christmas lights. We insert parentheticals to adorn dull exposition. We find ways to use thirty words to express an idea, however important it may be, that could have been described in a much more simplified way. My last sentence was thirty words. I could have said: We use more words than we need. That is a difference of twenty-three words! Too much embellishment makes writing gaudy.
Stephen King discusses this in On Writing, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
We know to avoid overusing adjectives and adverbs. Those are not the problem. So, what words are causing issues? Richard C. Wydick has a name for them. He calls them glue words. In his book, Plain English for Lawyers, Wydick classifies words into two categories. Working words carry the weight of the sentence. Glue words connect the working words together. Both kinds of words are necessary. The trouble starts when writers get fancy.
When we infuse sentences with too much window-dressing, the ratio of glue words to working words shifts. We inundate our writing with prepositions, conjunctions, weak verbs, and modifiers. Sentences get sticky, and sticky sentences are cumbersome. To make your writing shine, streamline your use of glue words.
Consider a reader’s brain. Brains are excellent and efficient. They often process entire sentences at once. They instinctively seek working words and derive meaning from them. They roll over less significant words and phrases because they are familiar with sentence structure and can intuit those parts. Think back to any recent conversation. Odds are, you remember what was said, including many of the working words, but you won’t remember exact phrasings.
I know we writers imagine readers savoring every syllable of our works. But they don’t. And if their brains can’t locate meaningful words in glue-saturated sentences, the process becomes cumbersome. It pulls readers from the story. They may never know what they didn’t like about your book. They just “couldn’t get into it.” If you receive that feedback, your plotting or characters may not be to blame. Maybe they just got stuck in all the glue.
Glue words aren’t all bad. Without them, you sound like a neanderthal. Efficiency is the key. As a guideline, sticky words should represent 40% or less in your sentences. That doesn’t mean your writing won’t have sentences with more. But keep those to a minimum.
Your writing will grow stronger, and your voice will sound confident.
Give your writing a sticky audit. It’s easy. Reading your text aloud helps. Sticky sentences often trip up your tongue. Software can help, too. Programs like Grammarly and ProWritingAid have algorithms to locate sticky sentences. Familiarizing yourself with common glue words enables you to avoid writing them. And make no mistake, you have a favorite or two that encroach on every paragraph you write.