Thursday, November 11, 2010

Clear out the verbal clutter (3) – a 64-percent reduction

You should always clear out verbal clutter, because verbal clutter confuses and irritates your readers. It is the main reason why people stop reading something you have written. If you become good at clearing out clutter, you will hold readers’ attention longer.

An Example of Verbal Clutter

Clearing out verbal clutter takes less time than most people think. But it does require some patience. The best way is to proceed methodically and slowly. Here’s an example:

I saw a wordy article about how to clear a jam in a paper shredder. The article was loaded with redundancies, circumlocutions, unnecessary information, and excessive ornamentation.* I thought it would provide an instructive example.

The original article is 528 words long. I proceeded word by word and phrase by phrase, at a slow-to-moderate pace. After 15 minutes, in one pass, I had cut the length of the text by 64 percent, to 191 words.**

My Rewrite, Clearing Out the Verbal Clutter

Even if you own a high-quality shredder, and you oil and maintain it regularly, eventually you will have to clear a jam. Jams are usually easy to clear, provided you follow these steps.

Unplug the shredder and let it cool.

Plug it in and press the “reverse” button for a few seconds; the shredder may eject the jammed paper. (Don’t hold the button for longer than a few seconds; you could burn out the motor.)

If the paper does not eject, pull out the plug and use a pair of tweezers to try to gently remove the jammed paper. (Be careful: metal objects can damage the shredder blades.)

If you can’t remove the jammed paper, soak it with oil. Allow the oil to saturate the paper for about 15 minutes. Then repeat the two previous steps.

If you are still unsuccessful, refer to your owner’s manual or call for professional help.

To prevent jams, regularly oil the shredder blades, put the machine in reverse for about 15 seconds, and feed it a few sheets of paper to absorb excess oil. Remember to keep oil handy, for maintenance and for clearing jams.

The Takeaway: To hold readers’ attention, clear out the verbal clutter.

See disclaimer.

*Here’s an example of excessive ornamentation: adding “on your hands” to “you might have a more serious problem.” Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this ornament, and I do not intend to hamper the author’s style; however, ornaments should be used in moderation. In instructional text, ornamentation should be minimal or nonexistent – especially in a case like this one, in which the length is triple what it should be.

**A reduction this large is not unusual. Wordy writers always use at least twice as many words as they need; therefore a capable editor can always cut at least 50 percent on the first pass, without even working hard.

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