Your roommate has just returned from a blind date, and you, taking your pleasure whenever you can get it, begin to question him:
You: "Did you have a nice time?"
Y: "Keep going. What did you do?"
R: "We went to a movie."
Y: "So what movie already?"
R: "Bambi Meets Godzilla."
Y: "Talkative tonight, aren't you." Did you like it?"
R: "It was okay."
Y: "So what was she like?"
Y: "Nice! Cheese and crackers! What did she look like? Was she tall, short, fat skinny, bowlegged, dwarfed or deformed? Was she balding or suffering from a terrible skin disease? Did she have an extra eye? Tell me something."
R: "I said she was nice."
Y: "Nice! Why don't you ever tell me anything?"
Why hasn't your roommate told you anything? Look at the words he uses. Do okay or nice really say anything? Does movie seem very specific?
Confuscius said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Even when you're writing--working with words alone--you can paint pictures in your reader's mind.
What sorts of pictures do you see in the following pairs of sentences?
1. The old man walked to the beach.
2. Bent with age, the white-haired gentleman shuffled toward the park bench.
3. When I watch Paul Newman, I get excited.
4. When I look into Paul Newman's cool blue eyes, my socks roll up and down.
5. He was ugly.
6. His face was covered with warts, and when he smiled he revealed a mouthfull of broken, yellow teeth.
Which sentences paint better pictures in your mind? Why do they? What could you say about the better sentences? Are the words in those sentences general or specific?
How could you make these sentences more specific, more colorful, more interesting?
a. Bill drives an old car.
b. Mary talks a lot.
c. My mother is kind.
Another factor that can contribute to colorless sentences is the use of vague or empty words. Vague words include:
awful, big, cute, fantastic, fine, funny, glamorous, gorgeous, great, like, lovely, marvelous, nice, interesting, pretty, stuff, terrible, thing, weird.
What do these sentences say to you? Could you make them say even more?
She was nice.
I had a fantastic time.
What a terrible accident.
That thing has gotten out of hand.
My cousin is just gorgeous.
My daughter is so cute.
She gives such lovely parties.
I had a great date Friday night.
Why does wordiness occur? Picture this. It's two o'clock in the morning, and Joe College's 500-word essay is due at eight. He hasn't written a word, and he could care less about the topic: "Should sororities and fraternities be abolished?" But the damned thing has to be done, so he gives it a go:
Sororities and fraternities should be abolished because they are useless.
Ten words. This will never do. After all, if he needs a total of 500, why use one word where he might use more? Try again:
I think that sororities and fraternities should be abolished because they are a waste of time.
Second down, a gain of six. Good, but Joe can certainly do better:
In my humble opinion, though I do not claim to be an expert on such social matters--an Emnily Post, as it were--I sincerely think and feel that sororities and fraternities, those organizations designated to promote either sisterhood or brotherhood, are, or can be, a definite waste of the individual college student's recreational, social, and study time.
Fifty-eight. That has to be an all time record. He made an overall gain of forty-eight words. But has he gained anything else? Has he added one iota of information to his paper? Has he really said anything in those other forty-eight words?
Prune out the useless words in the following sentences. Make the sentences lean and tough. (Pruning out useless words is known as excision.)
1. My husband's mother, my mother-in-law, has repeatedly over and over again written me to inquire, or ask, which recipes for food Mac wants or wishes she would send to me so that he can finally at least have some decent, good, nourishing, tasty, delicious, nutritious meals.
2. In regard to that highly controversial and much talked about issue, or idea, it is my very humble opinion that I quite honestly and quite sincerely don't give a damn.
3. He is married to the former Jane Smith; she is his third wife.
4. They live in Eau Claire, which is in Wisconsin.
I think that David Bowie is a great singer. He has a great voice. He sings great songs and has a great band behind him. Not only is his singing the greatest I've ever heard, but his entire show, and especially his costumes, are the greatest things I have ever seen in show business. I bet there's never been and never will be a greater performer.
This sort of repetition begins to grate on the reader's nerves, if you'll excuse the pun. Avoid careless repetition. Try to think of different words to avoid the sort of meaningless mess cited here.
Repetition, on the other hand, can at times be used for effect:
. . . that the nation of the people, for the people and by the people . . .