Concise writing comes predominantly from organized drafting and revision (guided by the use of outlines) and from effective editing. For the first of the editing tips to be shared in this blog, one tool for cutting weak text will be discussed: removing expletive constructs.
The term expletive derives from the Latin for ''to fill up.'' This is precisely why expletives are a problem in concise writing; “filler material” is antithetical to brevity. Hopefully, we all know already not to use the curse words that sometimes “fill up” a sentence and that are also referred to as expletives. However, few know of us about another commonly used expletive construct. This construct is a combination of a pronoun and a conjugation of the verb “to be.” Examples of such expletive constructs are “it is,” “there are,” and “that was,” though others exist.
Two problems arise from such wording: (a) a weak verb and (b) an improperly located pronominal antecedent. Weak and commonly used verbs like “to be” cause double damage. They rob power from our sentence while also making the sentence wordier. To make matters worse, expletive constructs combine this double damage with a confusing word order relationship between a pronoun and its antecedent (noun reference). As the Latin origin of the word antecedent shows us, the noun should almost always be placed (-cedent) before (ante-) the pronoun. If we fail to do so, the meaning of the pronoun becomes unclear at the time it is read. Even if the pronoun might be clarified later, we do not want this lack of detail to interrupt the reader's understanding. (A rare exception to this antecedent placement rule is when the pronoun occurs in a subordinate clause at the start of the sentence, as the subordinating conjunction at the beginning of the subordinate clause already creates a context of adding information to a clause yet to come).
In order to strengthen your sentences, it is recommended that you cut expletives from your text. These examples explore some possible ways to do so.
Replace the expletive construct (underlined) by moving the subject (bold font) of the strongest verb (italicized) to the beginning of the sentence.
“There are many mistakes a writer can make.”
“A writer can make many mistakes.”
Replace the expletive construct (underlined) with the antecedent (bold font) and its containing phrase and change the verb (italicized) to a stronger one.
“It is a more powerful authorial voice to be concise.”
“Conciseness improves any authorial voice.”
Cut the expletive. (underlined)
“There are many strategies that improve authorial voice.”
“Many strategies improve authorial voice.”
Put this tool to use in your next editing project and see how your text improves!