By Susan Carter
Sometimes students have writing habits that make for bulky prose where the content to word ratio is low: too many words and not enough content. Often decongesting writing can be achieved through revision in peer review–in our posts, we often mention this. This post proposes the idea of a new group workshop for doctoral and academic writers: an ‘unwriting’ workshop where peer review focus is on trimming verbal excess. As someone who puts on writing workshops commonly, I like the idea of an unwriting workshop.
My own writing is always more stylish when I am forced to shed words. Usually I begin culling words due to journal limitations on length, and then later see how much stronger the writing is, and easier to read. (Sometimes my academic friends suggest some chops. This paragraph’s first sentence is better for the unwriting I have done, prompted by Claire. It was originally I’m prompted to have an entire workshop focused on unwriting by the way that my own writing is always more stylish when I am forced to shed words. I like the trimed version much better.)
Usually In addition, when reviewing writing, I’m often irritated by the bulkiness of some authors’ writing. My experiences as both a writer and a reader prompt my desire for a workshop that focuses entirely on cutting out excess.
Writing that has been partly unwritten is shorter, and readers appreciate prose that is clear and succinct. The aim is for complexity conveyed cleanly and simply. More to the point, though, writing that has gone through an unwriting exercise is sleeker and more self-assured. Writing develops a confident insider persona.
Here are some common habits that stick out in writing that is grammatically fine but just a bit wordy.
Double hinged verb constructions
Some authors too often turn a good verb into a noun so that it needs another verb to activate it. Some examples:
Written as: I launched an initiative to begin to start a peer review group.
Unwritten: I started a peer review group.
Written as: The production of a doctorate is going to drive you mad at some stage.
Unwritten: Undertaking a doctorate drives you mad at some stage.
It is easy to recycle ideas repeatedly especially across longer documents. In my own thesis, I shed thirty pages before submission by removing this kind of repetition. Unnecessary repetition can also occur in sentences as these examples illustrate:
Written as: Hegg’s theory was introduced to introduce the idea that the third element of chance could be a factor. [This is clunky, but something similar was in one draft I worked on.]
Unwritten: Hegg’s theory introduces the idea that the third element of chance could be a factor.
Written as: While conducting the study, I found that in this study, participants seemed to avoid mentioning any comments about unease.
Unwritten: In this study, participants avoided mentioning unease.
Phrases that could be adjectives
Written as: The students who were fully engaged…
Unwritten: The fully-engaged students….
Preference for lengthy Latinate words
Written as: The study utilized samples….
Unwritten: The study used samples…
Strunk and White (1972, pp23-24) give a few examples that are highly pertinent to novice academic authors. Under the succinct heading Omit Needless Words, they demonstrate some draft revision examples, including:
the question as to whether… the question
used for fuel purposes used for fuel
this is a subject that this subject
the reason why is because because
Within a group, hunting for superfluous words together can become a game, one that somehow alerts those involved to spot congestion in their writing later when revising alone. I’m privileged at present to facilitate group work for doctoral students, who bring their concerns to the group to engage in play with writing. Other posts describing writing group exercises would be welcome.
Strunk, W. Jr. & White, E. B. (1979). The Elements of Style. 3rd Ed. Boston, London, Toronto, Sydney, Tokyo, and Singapore: Allyn and Bacon.