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How to Firm Up Flabby Prose

By: Beth Mende Conny

Beth Mende Conny is the founder and president of She has published more than four dozen books and collections, and helps individuals and businesses bring their projects to publication. She can be contacted at

Want to be a lean, mean, writing machine? Then put your words on a diet. Here are some great suggestions for cutting flab, firming muscle and punching up your prose.

Learn to strip

Brilliant as your prose may be, you likely can toss a word or two ... or three or twenty. Be brutal. Strip away the extraneous until your sentences go buck naked. They can then, like streakers, zip across your page.

Remember the if's
  • If you can say it in one page instead of three-do so.

  • If you can say it in one paragraph instead of three-do so.

  • If you can say it in one sentence instead of three-do so.

  • If you can say it in one word instead of three-do so.

  • If you can say it in a one-syllable word instead of one with three-do so.

Avoid repetitions, redundancies, reiterations, restatements ...
  • owns his own business = business owner
  • a great number of times = many times
  • red-colored train = red train
  • broke both his legs = broke his legs
  • during the winter months = during winter
  • in the not-too-distant future = in the future
  • at this point in time = presently/now
  • postponed until later = postponed
  • mutual cooperation = cooperation

Take action

In writing, as in life, you can't sit there like a blob. You've got to use the active voice. Before and after examples:
  • The ballots were counted by him. = He counted the ballots.
  • He was robbed by a knife-wielding teenager. = A knife-wielding teenager robbed him.
  • There is much that today's parents have to worry about. = Today's parents have much to worry about.
  • It has been shown by numerous studies that insulating your water heater saves energy. = Studies show you save energy by insulating your water heater.

Don't be dramatic

When possible, use the plainest words possible. For example, too often we use "exclaim", "declare" or "chime" when plain ole "said" would do. Said's a great word; it doesn't draw attention to itself. Readers skip over it and concentrate instead on what's being said. Other examples:
  • meander/shuffle/saunter = walk
  • odorous/malodorous/redolent = smelly
  • mawkish/maudlin/bathetic = sentimental
BTW-Sometimes people don't just walk; they really do meander, shuffle and saunter. Allow them their style, but keep your words in check.

Mix it up

Good writing has flow. One sentence rolls into the other, creating an ebb and flow of words. Stop the flow and you get writing like this:
  • I love chocolate. Chocolate is tasty. Chocolate cookies are my favorite. I like chocolate ice cream, too. I like chocolate milk.

An alternative:
  • Chocolate cookies, ice cream, milk-I love anything chocolate.

Don't worry about punctuation and grammar

Big deal if you don't know the difference between who and whom, or when (or when not) to use a colon. Most of us don't, which is why books on punctuation and grammar abound. Use them as you need them.

Hot tip: Find three books written in a style even you understand. When you get stuck, say, on split infinitives, glance through all three for guidance. You'll find that three angles are better than one and almost always provide the guidance you need.

BTW-According to one of my grammar books, split infinitives are acceptable when writing informally. My other two books say no, no, no. Here, I defer to the minority.

© copyright Beth Mende Conny, 2002

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. MarcommWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. MarcomWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.


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