This week I visited a first-year seminar class. I asked students what writing questions they had, and they asked me what it meant to write “robust sentences.” I wondered where this question came from, and they replied that their professor had written this critique on their papers. They were confused. It wasn’t that they didn’t know the definition of “robust”; they quickly came up with synonyms for the word–strong, rich, and full-bodied–they just didn’t know how to translate this concept to their writing. It was a good question.
One key concept to writing robust sentences is making sure there are no unnecessary words in your sentences. I call these freeloader words: they take up space but do none of the hard work of conveying meaning. By cutting freeloaders, sentences become stronger because every word is contributing to the clarity of the message. Conciseness adds to robustness.
This doesn’t mean that every sentence has to be short. Sentence length variety provides for reader engagement and can be a tool for emphasis. It means that each sentence should contain no UNNECESSARY words.
Concise writing doesn’t just happen. You have to consciously comb through your draft looking for freeloaders. As you do, envision revision. Ask: is there a way to communicate this idea with fewer words?
Practice with these examples.
(wordy) This experience allowed me to recognize the importance of how networking can be beneficial in many ways.
(better) This experience taught me the importance and benefits of networking.
(wordy) This paragraph will explain how the greenhouse effect is caused and how it works; it will start with saying that the greenhouse effect is caused by certain gases.
(better) As heat from the Earth rises, it is absorbed by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; these gases include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.
In the first example, using parallel structure reduced the number of words. In the second example, using more precise words conveyed more information using fewer words.
Using punctuation effectively and avoiding passive constructions also will make your writing more concise. I’ll discuss these in upcoming posts. For now, all this writing about strong, rich, and full-bodied has made me want to run out and get a little extra java before my next student meeting! Did you know McDonald’s is giving it out free this week!