Sentence Sense: Writing Clearly for Publications, Work, and School | Duncan Koerber | Skillshare

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Sentence Sense: Writing Clearly for Publications, Work, and School

teacher avatar Duncan Koerber, University Professor

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

8 Lessons (32m)
    • 1. Overview

    • 2. Elements of the Course

    • 3. Redundancy

    • 4. Phoney Intensifiers

    • 5. Stretchers

    • 6. Thickeners

    • 7. Exercises

    • 8. Answers to Questions From Students

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About This Class

Do you want to impress employers, editors, or online readers with your writing? Do you want to get A grades on term papers and essays? Do you want to see your sentences objectively?

Take this short, practical course on how to write clearly from the author of Clear, Precise, Direct: Strategies for Writing (Oxford University Press, 2015). 

Four types of wordiness  redundancy, phoney intensifiers, stretchers, and thickeners — lurk in everyone's writing. This course raises your awareness of these "weeds" or "speedbumps" and then shows you how to remove them.

As a result, people will find your writing easy to read.

The objectives of this course are to help students understand the problem of wordiness to communication, recognize the four types of wordiness, and apply these principles in their own writing. No prerequisite knowledge or materials are required. 

Meet Your Teacher

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Duncan Koerber

University Professor


Dr. Duncan Koerber has taught writing and communications courses for the past 10 years at six Canadian universities to thousands of students.

Currently a full-time assistant professor at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, Duncan Koerber worked for nearly 10 years in reporting and editing roles for the London Free Press, the Mississauga News, and the University of Toronto Medium. He has freelanced for magazines and newspapers, including the Toronto Star.

Oxford University Press recently published his writing textbook, Clear, Precise, Direct: Strategies for Writing (2015). Available on Amazon, the book considers the seven most common errors (interfering factors) in writing and how to improve them (enhancing factors). His second book, Crisis Communication... See full profile

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1. Overview: This course describes the common problem of wordiness that makes communication with readers difficult. In it, you'll learn about the four basic categories of wordiness and how to write in an economical way to make communication easy. My expectations for you please watch all the videos first. To understand the four main types of wordiness, thes will provide red flags in your mind when you come across similar examples in your writing. Then at the end, do the project list of below this video to try out this concept. It's important to try this out, or else you won't totally internalize the lesson. If you have any questions, send me a message in the discussions of the course. 2. Elements of the Course: there are many, many, many different types of wordiness or really, we can boil it all down to four. So if you eliminate these four types of wording this from your writing, it will be so much clear, and your readers will appreciate it. They won't be walking through quicksand, so to speak. So what are those four types that we're gonna go through in these lectures the first time we're gonna look at his redundancy. So redundancy is saying the same thing more than once now in some kind of educational settings. There's a thing called planned redundancy. And sometimes I might even do this in these lectures, and that is to repeat myself. But at the sentence level, which is where we're primarily focused in this course, redundancy is dead weight. So it's extra words that don't have to be there. And most often we don't even notice this dead weight in our sentences. So that's type number one wordiness type. Number two is called phony intensive fires. So these are off every little words sprinkled liberally across the writing that end in Why so think of words like very and basically in our speech these days, when we talk to our friends, we often say, vary a lot. We say Basically, we say, Honestly, they're these little words just get thrown in all the time to intensify what we're saying. So we were very interested in something or honestly, sure, that's gonna happen and they don't really serve any purpose. And I'll show you some examples of that in the next few lectures. The third type of wordiness is a thing called stretchers, and stretchers are combinations of very small words. So the words themselves were not big but not heavy. But in combination with other little ones, they prolong a sentence. They take the sentence longer than it should be. And most of the time you can actually cut out the stringy phrases from your writing, and the sentence still stands strong. It still works. It still functions, so they serve no necessary purpose in the sense. One of the classic stretchers that I find in school writing in academic writing is the phrase the fact that the fact that and I'll show you in a subsequent lecture, how to remove that I'm and justify removing it, another one that comes up in a lot of writing, whether it's business or academia is a stretch here in order to and after we can just say to. So there's just a couple of little bit of a taste of the third type of wordiness that so common in work in business writing and academic writing and political writing. And that is the stretcher. The fourth type of wordiness that we look at in these lectures is thickeners, So thickeners are big words, heavy words that very few people actually use in everyday speech. So they're often using legal documents. Some people use them in academic writing, toe look smart things like very in and whereby, but these are words we don't usually use in regular conversation, and those thickeners can really weigh down a sentence. They can make it heavy. So now let's turn to the next few lectures to deal with these four types specifically, so I'll give you specific examples of these and will give a justification for why you should remove them. I think by the end of the editing process of removing these from your writing, you'll find a much tighter, much clear, much more direct style of writing 3. Redundancy: the first roadblock to clarity in your writing is redundancy. Now we typically think of redundancy in most reading on the level of the idea. So in my experience as a writing instructor, students will often submit papers that have said the same thing presented the same idea in multiple points of the paper. That's not what I'm talking about in this lecture. I want to zoom in on the sentence so all of these lectures are about the sentence. And I always believe if we can work on our sentences and get those sentences in the shape, everything else will fall into place. So we're zooming in. We're going on that micro level to the sentence, and redundancy can occur there, too. And often this is the kind of redundancy we never even notice. We just aren't looking that carefully at our sentences, so redundancy can exist on the level of the word. So that means you're using two words, or Maurin the sentence that are actually performing the same meaningful function. So they're actually saying the same thing. So now let's look at some real examples of redundancy in practice. So the first sentence here the board was long in size. What is redundant in that sentence? While the word long is all about size, it means size. So to say it's long in size is redundant. We don't need to say that it doesn't add anything to the sentence. Why make the reader process more words than they need to know? Why don't we just move on to our next point about that board? So what's the edit here? Well, you just simply cross in size out and you're done. Here's another sentence. The plane circled around the airport before landing. I'm sure you guessed here, looking at it now very carefully, on a word by word analysis that the verb circled a really good Vir Bridge. Strong verb means the same is the next word, which is around so simply you could cross out around. Another example is the sentence we share in common, a love for baseball. So the redundancy here at the sentence level is simply that the verb share means the same is in common. Of course, if we share something, it's in common, so there's no reason to say in common after that, we just cross that out. Another example, that kind of gets me when I'm editing other people's reading and I always cross this out is my invention is a great new innovation. So the redundancy here the extra word here is new because the noun innovation implies that it's new. Because if this if this device or whatever the object is the invention wasn't an innovation , then you know it wouldn't be knew it would be. It would be a copy of somebody else's work so we can just cross out new in that case. So here are some other examples listed on the slide, and I want you to pause this video and look through those in Edita, simply crossing out the unnecessary words in the sentence. This does not require re casting the sentences, rewriting the sentences. All it is is just crossing a few words out and collapsing the sentence down to its essence . And you'll know that in these edits for redundancy that the final sentence that you come up with still means the same thing as the original. It just gets over with faster. To sum up. The meaning in these extra words was always found somewhere else in the sentence, usually in a previous word or a word nearby, so it was kind of duplicated, meaning so to remove that makes the sentence much more efficient, much cleaner, much tighter. 4. Phoney Intensifiers: the second type of wording. This is the phony intensifier these air often used to strain to appear confident. So maybe, and this is the paradox of the phony intensifier. Maybe the person using it is not as confident as they actually are. They feel like they need to use these little words throughout their speech to show confidence. And as we know, people who are confident don't talk about being confident. So these are the little words that really serve no purpose in a sentence. They might be words like absolutely or basically or certainly or really, I mean in people's regular speech really is used a lot in conversation also very totally. And what you'll find is you can delete the's just cross thumb out of your sentences, and the sentence still functions. And often the meaning is little like the redundant words that I talked about in a previous lecture. The meaning is likely found in another part of the sentence, and regular speech intensifies could be used simply to fill dead air, so we don't know what to say. And instead of saying, um or ah, we use these intensive fires to fill in that gap We don't want that in writing. We don't need those in writing. And these intensive fires often but don't always end in why or l Why? So now let's look on the slide for some full sentence Examples of the use of phony intensive fires and the 1st 1 is I am absolutely confident in my abilities. Now somebody could just say, I am confident in my abilities. Does the absolutely, really add anything? They're actually, it starts to make me question. Why is this person being so insistent about being confident with with the intensifier? Absolutely. The 2nd 1 is were basically good students. So this is again intensifying something. It's qualifying how good these students are. We don't know why. It's basically that's like saying virtually good students. Well, you're suggesting that there's some small fraction that did not good, and that raises questions. Another one is David certainly needs toe water. The garden today, I guess the garden is parched. It since the middle of summer that garden needs water and really the certainly which is the intensifier here doesn't add anything. I mean, if the garden needs it, it needs it. We could just say he needs to water the garden today. Another one is I really want to go to the store. I want to go to the store or not. What does really add to that? I mean, you would need more context there, whatever it is about that store, maybe maybe the person is trying to get the latest Air Jordan shoes or something like that . And maybe it's appropriate to say, really, But in most cases, really is just an extra where that we can remove another one that comes up is often used in fiction writing. So somebody my rights, the dog is very ugly now. First of all, this is a problem because it tells the reader that the dog is ugly and stuff showing it. So if you want to show it, you would describe the features of that dog that make it so ugly. You would just tell the reader it's ugly. Ugly can mean so many different things and very, which is a common intensifier. It really doesn't serve much. Purpose doesn't help us see this dog. So what's the difference between an ugly dog and a very ugly dog? I'm not sure. I don't know. In my mind. So if it doesn't help us to see that dog, then what purpose does that intensifier have in the sentence? And that intensifier very, was even cited a century or more ago by the great author Mark Twain, who said, Substitute damn, every time you're inclined to write, vary, your editor will delete it, and the writing will be just as it should be. So Mark Twain identified this a long, long time ago, and certainly in our speech today, particularly amongst young people, varies. Used a lot for no real purpose in academic writing or political writing. These intensive fires have a more dangerous use, so people will often use them to close off debate. So if you're writing any public document, you really shouldn't be closing off debate. Maybe you do have opposing people out there that are against your views, but really you want to open up the debate and if your ideas air good, they will win the debates in the public sphere. But some things in academic writing or politics, people will say something like this. It is obvious that heart meant something quite different. So there the phony intensifier is it is obvious, which we can critique if we know this argument. If we know this person named Heart, maybe it's not so obvious someone might write. Naturally, no one wants to sacrifice that much. And here's another one. I mean to say naturally means that you've closed off debate. You know, when can have an opinion other than the one that you're saying, which is No one wants to sacrifice that much. Ah, politician might say something like, Of course, the solution is simple. Lower taxes. Well, maybe there is another option there in the political debate, other than lowering taxes, but that's closed off by this intensifier of, of course. So this lesson on the phony intensifier has hopefully raised your awareness of this often useless word that we pepper around our sentences. So the first thing to do is to take your piece of writing and maybe do control F find inward. Type in these words like very and basically in totally and see if you're using them and the easy edit is simply to delete them and your sentence will still function will still work dramatically. Speaking stylistically, it will be a lot better, so look out for these in your writing. And you might also question, Why am I using these? Why do I feel the need in my writing to strain to appear confident? Perhaps you need to provide more evidence for the statements that you're making because you maybe subconsciously don't feel confident what you're saying. 5. Stretchers: The third type of wordiness that inhibits clarity is stretchers. So stretches air, just little words putting combinations. But they don't add any quality to your writing, so they only add quantity. They actually make the sentence longer, but they don't add any meaning there. I like in these stretchers to the food industries practice of putting fillers into chicken nuggets into ground beef. And those fillers are not nutritious. They don't provide any benefit health wise to the consumer, but they're put in to fill out the food product. And that's the same thing with stretchers. They had no meaning to your sentences. They just force the reader to sift through the sentence to find the essential or important meeting around all this other stuff. So here are a few sentences that I've put on the screen, and let's identify the stretching words here. These were not big words is they're just little words, but they really serve no purpose. So the 1st 1 is in order to get to the store, we have to cross the railroad tracks, and in this case, the stretching words are in order to, so we could just say, to get to the store. We have to cross the railroad tracks now Look at the 2nd 1 At this point in time, let's read the book. So that's 123456789 words. And at this point in time takes up the majority of the sentence. We could say something like, Now let's read the book so that one word now replaces 12345 words in a stringy stretcher phrase. Another one is used in academia, and that is Hemingway's. Use of economy is his hallmark on this case, the stretching phrase is use of. So we could just say Hemingway's economy is his hallmark. Another one is William persuades by means of logic. Again, like the Hemingway example, you could just say William, persuades by logic or with logic by means of doesn't help us now to that come up in a lot of fiction writing. And I see this all the time and then is the word started and the word began, so people always seem to want to emphasize that inaction began, even though when you invoke the verb itself, you are beginning the action. So if I say something like Sandy started to stop crying while started doesn't need to be there. We could just say Sandy, stop crime because stopping inherently starts at some point, there's no need to say it started. That's implied. And then also, Canal began to punch. What about Kunal? Punched Kunal punched The man could be the sentence in a fiction story, and in that case we know it's beginning when the punch is done, you know. So when the action comes, we know it starts. Is the reason to emphasize its starting the beginning of it. And then, finally, a common academic example is the fact that music is a big business is well known. The fact that comes up in a lot of sentences not usually at the start, actually is that example shows, but commonly in the middle of a sentence. And most of the time I would say, probably 95% of the time, you can simply cross that out. So you can say that music is a big business, is well known, and in the middle of sentences often just be completely crossed out. And these stretchers remind me of a great cold by the writer George Orwell, who wrote the right book 1984 and then is, if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. And if you edit out these stretchers, you'll find that your senses get to the point faster. You're not having these winding constructions that go all over the place before getting to that point, and I think it also emphasises those keywords and more because they're not being shrouded by these stretchers. For example, the point about the man punching well, that's a strong verb punch, but it gets hidden by begin or start. So your next task is to go through your writing and search for these stretching phrases and strike them out right when you find them. 6. Thickeners: some people use what I call thickeners. This is the fourth type of wording is so common to people's writing, and these thickeners air, often unusual, are archaic words, their words from a different time or their words that are typically Onley used by lawyers or the Queen of England. So if you're a lawyer or you're the queen of England, keep using these words. But if you're like the rest of us, you should get these things out of your writing. And a good test of these thickeners is Would you use these words in regular speech? So you're talking to your mother. You're talking to your father. You're talking to your friends. Would you use words like here to four or here in Or whereby and so on? No, we wouldn't use those we don't. We never use those who were talking to regular people. But somehow in in some documents, particularly academic writing but also business reading to a general public, these words pop up. Some students in academia feel that if they use these words, they look really smart. While you don't you don't look smart. I actually think the best academic writing and I have been widely published in academia. The best academic writing is the writing that seems deceptively simple, But the ideas, the ideas that you've got in that writing are very deep. You know, their complex. They're subtle, but we don't use these words to show off in that kind of reading. Instead, I think most smart, reader smart editors No, they don't fit the typical writing that we're doing, and they're like boat anchors just dropping in the middle of a sentence. So here are a few sentences that employ these thickeners, and these are the ones that just mentioned. So, for example, someone could say it has been here to Fore mentioned that Shakespeare's work is significant . When was the last time you used here to four? So you might just say someone mentioned that Shakespeare's work is significant or Bob mentioned or whatever. Here in lies the key point, I think most people say here is the key point. This is the key point. Someone, my right Sarah found the means whereby she could cheat on tomorrow's test. Williams never used whereby, so let's just say Sarah found the means to cheat on tomorrow's test. Also, somebody's in academia and business writing and political writing. We use the phrase is former and latter, So these words remind the reader to go back, actually to a previous sentence. An associate former and latter with two previous now owns. For example, you might say something like John likes ice cream and Joe likes Popsicles. The former also eats deli sandwiches while the latter eats subs. Problem with this sentence, and with these thickeners former and latter is it requires the reader to do some mental gymnastics. It's very small mental gymnastics, not a big deal. But if you do this a law that can way down the reader because the reader actually has to make a mental connection between former in this case, and that's John. I'm just looking at the sentence myself, and Ladder has to go back mentally to Joe. And if you've got a tired reader, you've got a reader that's inattentive. You're making it really hard on them to have to go back and figure out who is what. You see this in a lot of textbooks. Academic textbooks, former and latter, don't make it hard on the reader to process your work at all of these wordiness. Examples. Make the reader do more work, and you don't want to do that. You want to make it easy on them. You want them to glide through your writing, and former and ladder do not work easily. It makes their job much more difficult. Go back to your writing and look for these difficult words. I'm sure you can think of others that they might come up and remove them. Replace them. Recast the sentence. If you have to, Teoh smooth over that speed bump. 7. Exercises: So in these lectures, I have given you four of the main types of worthiness. These are the things that get in the way of communication between you and your readers in whatever form. And these come up in any genre. So they were redundancy, phony intensifier, stretchers and thickeners. But it's not enough to just listen to me tell you these things and to look at the examples on the slides of these lectures. What you need to do now is try this out. Throw the lectures. I've suggested you go back to something you've written, and you look for these in your writing and you try to get them out. Another thing I would like you to do is to exercises. And there's these air exercises that I give to my students and writing courses that I've taught at the University of Toronto and York University and Ryerson University. And these exercises give me a chance to try this stuff out to the extreme. So the first exercise is simply to write a wordy paragraph of 100 words on any topic you can think of, but you need to use all the examples from the four categories that I've described in this set of lectures. So yeah, that's right. I want you to be worthy away to try this out. I want you to have some fun with it, and then I want you to never do this ever again. Now, the corresponding exercise of second exercise I want you to do is to write a very clear paragraph of 100 words on any topic. It doesn't have to be the same topic that you just wrote the wordy paragraph on, but there are some restrictions here, and these restrictions are going to force you to write an extremely clear, extremely economical style. You may have never written like this before, so the restrictions are that you cannot use words longer than six letters and sentences longer than 10 words. That's gonna be tough, and I know it's challenging. My students always find this exercise more challenging than the word in this one, because you have to write in a very simple style. If you're writing even in the past tense and you're adding E. D on two verbs, you'll find that you can only have of her that has a root of four letters because you're adding those two extra letters on the end, a lot of students will say this makes them sound like Children. And that's the point that as a child we often speak or write very clear, straightforward way. But we get away from that as adults. For whatever reason, whether it's trying to impress people as writers, whether we are simply not recognizing that we have word in the sonar writing, this is going to force you to try this out. Now, does that mean you should write in this style all the time that you should write Onley words of six letters and only sentences with 10 or fewer words? No, I don't believe you should write that way all the time. This is just a chance for you to feel from exercise one, which was extreme wordiness to the opposite, which is extreme economy, and you'll probably never use extreme economy in your life. The point is to find a kind of middle ground on a spectrum, so we could say that there's a spectrum here between economy and wordiness, and you need to find a place in the middle of that somewhere, a range where you feel comfortable. And so that doesn't mean being extremely wordy as you may be. Now we're extremely economical. Just find that middle ground somewhere. But this will give you a taste of what it would be like if you wrote economically all the time. 8. Answers to Questions From Students: in this final lecture. I just want to talk about some possible questions from students. So I've taught this unit on wordiness and clarity many, many times to hundreds and hundreds of students. And these air kind of the most common questions that come up. If you have any questions, you can obviously send me those questions within this course. So the first question are common. That I yet from students, is doesn't writing clearly mean your dumbing things down, and I don't believe that's so I believe that we should write clearly, but then have very interesting, challenging, deep ideas. One example, after giving Class, is the book by Stephen Hawking called A Brief History of Time. This was a best seller, so he sold 10 million there more copies of this because it it talked about difficult issues with physics in the universe, but in a very straightforward style that even Children could understand. So we shouldn't think that we're dumbing things down. I mentioned in the exercise lecture of this unit that some people feel they are writing like a child when they write in an economical or clear style, and it need not be that way you don't have to write really short words or really short sentences now that made a whole career for Hemingway when he wrote his novels, you read Hemingway and it's just extremely bear kind of writing, but that you made a career out of that. People love that style of writing. A lot of people didn't like it either, so there are two sides to this. There's a debate over that, but it doesn't necessarily have to be your style all the time. Sometimes, though, when you're dealing with very difficult concepts in a book you're writing or article, it's good to take it down to its simplest form, and it will help you think more clearly now. Some students also asked me, Well, if I'm economical, If I'm clearing my writing, it will meet. My word counts. So I've got to write 2000 words for my professor. How am I going to do that? I'm very clear. Well, of course you're gonna be shorter, but I had a great professor. Tell me once that if you are not meeting the word count because you're clear in your writing that you simply should add in more ideas so more scenes in your fiction, more quotations in your academic papers, more data in your business reports, and that will get you to the workout. But padding it with stuff that makes it difficult on the reader just makes the writing ineffective. Another question I get is, Can't you be redundant for emphasis? Well, of course you can. You can do that. And I have done that throughout this course, because in education some things we need to emphasize certain things. We need to repeat ourselves because that helps learning to some degree. But as you'll note throughout this section on wordiness and clarity about the examples on giving are not attentional. They're not things that people are using to repeat a point or to help the reader there actually things that either not noticing where they're doing to show off, and that doesn't help anybody so you can do what's called planned redundancy. But it has to be intentional and has of a purpose. And then a final question I get from students sometimes is This is really picky stuff. So you're editing out a word here phrase here. How does that really help my writing? Well, I argue that If you do this throughout a long document, it has a profound effect because it's all over the document. You're taking out all of those weeds off the lawn, so to speak, and the resulting lawn, where your writing looks much, much better after this editing process. So I I believe it has a strong effect. But more importantly, I think that you know, whether you take out the fact that or where in whereby, or some other phrase that I've talked about here isn't really the point. It is there to help you identify worthiness, but the greater point here. And I think what will happen at the end of this section when you've applied these things when you've done the exercises and so on, is that you'll start developing a greater I amore objective eye for what you're putting down on the page. I think that's much more important than any specific example I've given you here in this course that you can develop that I I hope by taking this course that you will be able to see other examples things that I haven't even talked about and a lot of students come up to me and they say, Is this an example of wordiness and its example? I've never thought of. It's something I've never seen and their right It is an example of wordiness, and that's the transcendent moment. That's when I'm happy to see that the writer has gone beyond. My lessons is realized. There I have their editors, I on the page, they've seen another example, and that awareness is amazing If you can have that awareness when you're writing your sentences, um, you'll have even greater effect on your writing as you go forward.