Make Your Writing Lean

lean writing is like lean menBloated writing, like a bloated stomach after a big meal, can put you to sleep. Is your writing lean?

Have you ever read a piece of writing that bored you without your knowing why? You started reading it because you had an interest in the subject, but you found yourself unable to finish it.

Many elements may contribute to your boredom, but a prime offender is writing that is stuffed with unnecessary words and phrases.

You can eliminate the following words from your writing without loss of clarity.

Keep Your Writing Lean

These adverbs all modify verbs, and they weaken their power.

Just, Really, Actually, Totally, Basically

  • I just wanted you to know (or I only wanted you to know).
  • I really wanted to tell you.
  • I actually believe you.
  • I totally agree with you.
  • I basically think you’re right.

If I basically think you’re right, you might wonder in what areas I think you’re wrong.

Really, actually, and totally imply a passion that might make the listener think the speaker protests too much. Is she sincere?

Just is a filler word that is meaningless, as is only. “I wanted you to know” is a clean, direct statement that needs no modification.

Slightly, Very, Pretty

These adverbs modify the passive form of a verb.

  • I am slightly upset.
  • I am very upset.
  • I am pretty upset.

Again, the listener would question the honesty of the speaker. Can you ever be slightly upset or worried or angry?

If you’re pretty or very upset, you need to consider upgrading the word “upset.” Very upset could mean furious or raging or heartbroken. Any of these words paint a more accurate picture of what a person feels.

Literally, As a Matter of Fact

Erase “literally” from your oral and written vocabulary. It could win awards for misuse. It means exactly.

I literally climbed the mountain in two hours.

This is correct if you did.

I literally receive a mountain of email a day.

Really? Mt. Everest is coming to your inbox? (I know It can feel like that at times.)

As a matter of fact is a close competitor to “literally.” If you’re wondering, in fact is also in the running. Both phrases tend to weaken the factual quality of whatever follows them.

Being that, In Terms Of, Even

Being that is an awkward phrasing. Since is an elegant replacement.

In terms of accuracy, two plus two equals four. The opening phrase is hardly needed.

Even Jose knew I was telling the truth.

I don’t think this says much for Jose. This isn’t the worst offender among filler words, but it’s unneeded.

See The Difference

Version 1
It was a very hot day, and Marianne was totally tired. She was also pretty angry at Kumar, who’d gotten up really early just so that he could take the air-conditioned car, leaving her the totally inefficient clunker whose air conditioning didn’t work at all.

Version 2
The day was a scorcher, and Marianne was exhausted. She was also furious at Kumar, who’d gotten up before dawn and driven off in the air-conditioned car, leaving her the clunker whose air conditioning hadn’t worked since 1998.

In lean writing using fewer words, the second version gives us a clear picture both of the weather and of Marianne’s mood. We can be certain that Kumar will not get a warm welcome tonight—but it might be a scorcher.

Look for empty words in your rough drafts and devote your editing efforts to removing and replacing them. You will find that your remaining words will have much more life.

Pat Iyer really works hard to keep her writing lean. Literally.

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