Rachael on the go

Quick writing tips and ideas, but some musings too

Lessons from a rug shop

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Today I saw a shop called Rug World, with a sign that very helpfully described the business as ‘A world of rugs’. I can assure you that the extra description implies no extra meaning; it is truly useless. Except that it prompted two ideas for me to chat about here.

First, how we order words can shorten/lengthen a sentence and make it more/less readable. So, ‘A world of rugs’ is needlessly longer than the neat ‘Rug World’. In the same way, you may write ‘it is the decision of the group to sign the contract’, but a possessive word cluster works better: ‘the group’s decision is to sign the contract’. Or, remembering my push for more verbs, try ‘the group decided to sign the contract’.

The second lesson from Rug World is how easily we fall into the trap, when trying to be super duper clear, of repeating our message in consecutive sentences. Sometimes the writer signposts the repetition for the reader (for example, ‘In other words’ or ‘What this means is’ or ‘In summary’ or ‘Basically’). And sometimes they don’t even recognise that they’ve doubled up on the same idea. The latter case often occurs when a writer is unsure of the content and still thinking/processing while actually writing.

What to do about such repetition? Cut it. When words or phrases do the same descriptive job or convey the same idea, they add unnecessary wordiness. Think about the following sentence:

The results also reinforce the finding that the magnitude of the effect of demographic and social variables is small.

Repetition arises in the use of both ‘also’ and ‘reinforce’, and again with ‘magnitude’ and ‘small’. In each pair, one word makes the other redundant. So, a better (and shorter) sentence is:

Revised: The results also found the demographic and social variables have a small effect.

Repetition is one form of a broader problem that I call ‘redundancy’. Text is redundant when it adds no value to your meaning. As a writer, you can start to self-edit that problem by looking for and deleting redundant text. See how these two sentences can be improved:

These stakeholders have a different involvement this year, due to the fact that there are more consultation stages this year.
Revised: The stakeholders’ involvement is higher this year because there are more consultation stages.

It is important to remember that the policy in regard to its implications for members of the community is …
Revised: The policy implications for the community are …

Look out for redundancy in the following forms:

tautologies, which merely repeat the message. Examples:
basic and fundamental
each and every

Remedy: delete either one of the paired words.

redundant modifiers, which describe something evident. Examples:
To all intents and purposes, this is similar by its very nature at this particular point in time.
Remedy: delete the empty modifiers (the italicised words).

abstract nouns, which are often made redundant by concrete words in the same sentence. Examples:
the concept of equal opportunity implies
it is a fact that increased workloads cause
in a situation where statistics are not available

Remedy: delete the abstract nouns (the italicised words) or convert them to concrete nouns.

unnecessary repetition of long phrases when you can use a single word or simple phrase. Examples:
the Queensland Fireworks Public Safety Code
the Australian/New Zealand Standard AS/NZS ISO 8124.1:2002 Safety of toys Part 1 Safety aspects related to mechanical and physical properties

Remedy: shorten the subsequent use of these titles to ‘the code’ and ‘the standard.

In other words, don’t repeat yourself at the sentence and paragraph levels. At work, you want skeletal sentences, not porky ones.

Author: Rachael Dullahide

Editor, writer, writing trainer

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