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Dr. Karen Palmer

When revising, it’s important to check to be sure that you are conveying your ideas accurately and in a way that keeps readers’ attention. This means eliminating repetitive ideas, using straightforward language, using appropriate language, and, sometimes, using figurative language.

Eliminating Repetitive Ideas

Unless you are providing definitions on purpose, stating one idea in two ways within a single sentence is redundant and not necessary. Read each example and think about how you could revise the sentence to remove repetitive phrasing that adds wordiness. Then study the suggested revision below each example.

Original: Use a very heavy skillet made of cast iron to bake an extra juicy meatloaf.

Revision: Use a cast iron skillet to bake a very juicy meatloaf.

Original: Joe thought to himself, “I think I’ll make caramelized grilled salmon tonight.”

Revision: Joe thought, “I think I’ll make caramelized grilled salmon tonight.”

Removing Repeated Words

As a general rule, you should try not to repeat a word within a sentence. Sometimes you simply need to choose a different word. But often you can actually remove repeated words. Read this example and think about how you could revise the sentence to remove a repeated word that adds wordiness. Then check out the revision below the sentence.

Original: The student who won the cooking contest is a very talented and ambitious student.

Revision: The student who won the cooking contest is very talented and ambitious.

Use Straightforward Language

Rewording to Eliminate Unneeded Words

If a sentence has words that are not necessary to carry the meaning, those words are unneeded and can be removed to reduce wordiness. Read each example and think about how you could revise the sentence to remove phrasing that adds wordiness. Then check out the suggested revisions to each sentence.

Original: Andy has the ability to make the most fabulous twice-baked potatoes.

Revision: Andy makes the most fabulous twice-baked potatoes.

Original: For his part in the cooking class group project, Malik was responsible for making the mustard reduction sauce.

Revision: Malik made the mustard reduction sauce for his cooking class group project.

Use Specific Words

You will always give clearer information if you write with specific rather than general words.

Look at the following example and think about how you could reword it using specific terms. Then check out the following revision to see one possible option.

Original: The animals got out and ruined the garden produce.

Revision: The horses got out and ruined the tomatoes and cucumbers.

General Words Specific Words
children Tess and Abby
animals dogs
food cheeseburger and a salad

Use Concrete Words

Another way to make your writing clearer and more interesting is to use concrete, rather than abstract, words. Abstract words do not have physical properties. But concrete words evoke senses of taste, smell, hearing, sight, and touch. For example, you could say, “My shoe feels odd.” This statement does not give a sense of why your shoe feels odd since odd is an abstract word that doesn’t suggest any physical characteristics. Or you could say, “My shoe feels wet.” This statement gives you a sense of how your shoe feels to the touch. It also gives a sense of how your shoe might look as well as how it might smell. Look at the following example and think about how you could reword it using concrete words. Then check out the following revision to see one possible option.

Original: The horses got out and ruined the tomatoes and cucumbers.

Revision: The horses stampeded out and squished and squirted the tomatoes and cucumbers.

Abstract Words Concrete Words
noise clanging and squealing
success a job I like and enough money to live comfortably
civility treating others with respect

Focusing on Both Denotations and Connotations

Consider that the words “laid-back” and “lackadaisical” both mean “unhurried and slow-moving.” If someone said you were a “laid-back” student, you would likely be just fine with that comment, but if someone said you were a “lackadaisical” student, you might not like the connotation. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs all have both denotations and connotations. The denotation is the definition of a word. The connotation is the emotional sense of a word. For example, look at these three words:

  • excited
  • agitated
  • flustered

The three words all mean to be stirred emotionally. In fact, you might see one of the words as a definition of another one of them. And you would definitely see the three words in a common list in a thesaurus. So the denotations for the three words are about the same. But the connotations are quite different. The word “excited” often has a positive, fun underlying meaning; “agitated” carries a sense of being upset; and “flustered” suggests a person is somewhat out of control. When you are choosing a word to use, you should first think of a word based on its denotation. Then you should consider if the connotation fits your intent.

Using Appropriate Language

As a writer, you do not want inappropriate word choice to get in the way of your message. For this reason, you need to strive to use language that is accurate and appropriate for the writing situation. Learn for yourself which words you tend to confuse with each other. Omit jargon (technical words and phrases common to a specific profession or discipline) and slang (invented words and phrases specific to a certain group of people), unless your audience and purpose call for such language. Avoid using outdated words and phrases (cliches), such as “dial the number.” Be straightforward in your writing rather than using euphemisms (a gentler, but sometimes inaccurate, way of saying something). Be clear about the level of formality needed for each different piece of writing and adhere to that level.

Guarding against Misusing Words

If you are uncertain about the meaning of a word, look the word up before you use it. Also, if your spellchecker identifies a misspelled word, don’t automatically accept the suggested replacement word. Make an informed decision about each word you use.

image

Equipment and memories can be photographic, but to look good in pictures is to be photogenic. To catch an error of this nature, you clearly have to realize the word in question is a problem. The truth is, your best chance at knowing how a wide range of words should be used is to read widely and frequently and to pay attention to words as you read.

Focusing on Easily Confused Words

Words in homophone sets are often mistaken for each other.  The table below presents some examples of commonly confused words other than homophones. You will notice that some of the words in the table have similar sounds that lead to their confusion. Other words in the table are confused due to similar meanings. Keep your personal list handy as you discover pairings of words that give you trouble.

Commonly Confused Words

affect effect good well
all ready already lay lie
allusion illusion leave let
among between ordinance ordnance
are our precede proceed
award reward quiet quite
breath breathe quote quotation
can may sit set
conscience conscious statue statute
desert dessert that which
emigrate immigrate through thorough
especially specially who whom
explicit implicit

Writing without Jargon or Slang

Jargon and slang both have their places. Using jargon is fine as long as you can safely assume your readers also know the jargon. For example, if you are a lawyer, and you are writing to others in the legal profession, using legal jargon is perfectly fine. On the other hand, if you are writing for people outside the legal profession, using legal jargon would most likely be confusing, and you should avoid it. Of course, lawyers must use legal jargon in papers they prepare for customers. However, those papers are designed to navigate within the legal system.

You are, of course, free to use slang within your personal life, but unless you happen to be writing a sociolinguistic study of slang itself, it really has no place in academic writing. Even if you are writing somewhat casual responses in an online discussion for a class, you should avoid using slang or other forms of abbreviated communication common to IM (instant messaging) and texting.

Using Clichés Sparingly

Clichés are phrases that were once original and interesting creations but that became so often used that they have ceased to be interesting and are now viewed as overworked. If you have a tendency to use a cliché or see one while you are proofreading, replace it with plain language instead.

as fresh as a daisy as slow as molasses as white as snow
beat around the bush being led down the primrose path big as life
bottomless pit busy as a bee can’t see the forest for the trees
chip off the old block dead of winter dirt cheap
don’t upset the apple cart down to earth flat as a pancake
for everything there is a season from feast to famine go with the flow
gone to pot green with envy growing like a weed
heaven on earth here’s mud in your eye in a nutshell
in the doghouse just a drop in the bucket knock on wood
light as a feather like a duck out of water made in the shade
muddy the water naked as a jaybird nutty as a fruitcake
old as dirt our neck of the woods plain as the nose on your face
raking in the dough sick as a dog stick in the mud
stubborn as a mule sweet as apple pie thorn in my side
two peas in a pod under the weather walks on water
water under the bridge when pigs fly

Avoid Flowery or Pretentious Language

Some writers choose to control meaning with flowery or pretentious language, euphemisms, and double-talk. All these choices obscure direct communication and therefore have no place in academic writing. Study the following three examples that clarify each of these misdirection techniques.

Technique Example Misdirection Involved Straightforward Alternative
Flowery or pretentious language Your delightful invitation arrived completely out of the blue, and I would absolutely love to attend such a significant and important event, but we already have a commitment. The speaker seems to be trying very hard to relay serious regrets for having to refuse an invitation. But the overkill makes it sound insincere. We are really sorry, but we have a prior commitment. I hope you have a great event.
Euphemisms My father is follicly challenged. The speaker wants to talk about his or her father’s lack of hair without having to use the word “bald.” My father is bald.
Double-talk I was unavoidably detained from arriving to the evening meeting on time because I became preoccupied with one of my colleagues after the close of the work day. The speaker was busy with a colleague after work and is trying to explain being tardy for an evening meeting. I’m sorry to be late to the meeting. Work ran later than usual.

Presenting an Appropriate Level of Formality

Look at the following three sentences. They all three carry roughly the same meaning. Which one is the best way to write the sentence?

  1. The doctor said, “A full eight hours of work is going to be too much for this patient to handle for at least the next two weeks.”
  2. The doctor said I couldn’t work full days for the next two weeks.
  3. my md said 8 hrs of wrk R 2M2H for the next 2 wks.

If you said, “It depends,” you are right! Each version is appropriate in certain situations. Every writing situation requires you to make a judgment regarding the level of formality you want to use. Base your decision on a combination of the subject matter, the audience, and your purpose for writing. For example, if you are sending a text message to a friend about going bowling, the formality shown in example three is fine. If, on the other hand, you are sending a text message to that same friend about the death of a mutual friend, you would logically move up the formality of your tone at least to the level of example two.

Enhancing Writing with Figurative Language

Figurative language is a general term that includes writing tools such as alliteration, analogies, hyperbole, idioms, metaphors,  onomatopoeia, personification, and similes. By using figurative language, you can make your writing both more interesting and easier to understand.

Figure of Speech Definition Effect Example
Alliteration Repetition of single letters at the beginning of words. Gives a poetic, flowing sound to words. Dana danced down the drive daintily.
Analogy The comparison of familiar and unfamiliar ideas or items by showing a feature they have in common. Makes an unfamiliar idea or item easier to understand. Writing a book is like raising a toddler. It takes all your time and attention, but you’ll enjoy every minute of it!
Hyberbole A greatly exaggerated point Emphasizes the point I must have written a thousand pages this weekend.
Idiom A group of words that carries a meaning other than the actual meanings of the words. A colorful way to send a message. I think this assignment will be a piece of cake.
Metaphor An overall comparison of two ideas or items by stating that one is the other. Adds the connotations of one compared idea to the other compared idea. This shirt is a rag.
Onomatopoeia A single word that sounds like the idea it is describing. A colorful way to describe an idea while adding a sense of sound. The jazz band was known for its wailing horns and clattering drums.
Personification Attributing human characteristics to nonhuman things. Adds depth such as humor, drama, or interest. The spatula told me that the grill was just a little too hot today.
Simile

Using the word “like” or “as” to indicate that one item or idea resembles another.

A colorful way to explain an item or idea. Hanging out with you is like eating watermelon on a summer day.

Exercise 1

1. Choose five of the commonly confused words that are sometimes problems for you. Write a definition for each word and use each word in a sentence.

2. List five examples of jargon from a field of your choice. Then list two situations in which you could use the jargon and two situations in which you should not use the jargon.

3. Make a list of five situations where you should use very formal writing and five situations where more casual or even very informal writing would be acceptable.

4. Rewrite the following sentences by eliminating unneeded words.

  • I was late because of the fact that I could not leave the house until such time as my mother was ready to go.
  • I used a pair of hot pads to remove the hot dishes from the oven.
  • The bus arrived at 7:40 a.m., I got on the bus at 7:41 a.m., and I was getting off the bus by 7:49 a.m.
  • The surface of the clean glass sparkled.

5. Fill in the blank in this sentence with a word that carries a connotation suggesting Kelly was still full of energy after her twenty laps: Kelly ____ out of the pool at the end of her twenty laps.

Exercise 2

1. Identify the general/abstract words used in these sentences and replace them with a specific/concrete word:

  • I put my clothes somewhere and can’t find them.
  • I smelled something strong when I opened the refrigerator door.

2. Identify the cliché used in the following sentence and rewrite the sentence using straightforward language:

  • We should be up and running by ten o’clock tomorrow morning.

3. Identify the misused word in the following sentence and replace it with a correct word:

  • I’d rather walk then have to wait an hour for the bus.

4. Write a sentence using one of the types of figurative language.

5. Over the course of a week, record any instances of clichés or trite, overused expressions you hear in conversations with friends, coworkers, or family; in music, magazines, or newspapers; on television, film, or the Internet; or in your own language.


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Writing Clearly and Concisely Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Karen Palmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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