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Advice for students: How to unstuff a sentence

Advice for students: How to unstuff a sentence

Student-writers often believe that the secret of good writing is a reliance upon bigger and “better” words. Thus the haphazard thesaurus use that I wrote about last month. Another danger for student-writers involves the assumption that good writing is a matter of stuffy, ponderous sentences. Stuffy sentences might be explained by the need to make a required word-count, but I see such sentences even in writing assignments of only modest length. Most often, I think, these sentences originate in the mistaken idea that stuffiness is the mark of serious, mature writing.

A writer can begin to unstuff a sentence by looking closely at each of its elements and asking if it is needed. Here is an extreme example:

To begin, it is important to note that the theme of regret is an important theme in “The Road Not Taken,” which was written by Robert Frost, and that evidence for it can be found throughout the entire poem.

“To begin”: Like “to conclude,” this phrase is an unnecessary, empty transition. If a point is coming early (or late) in an essay, trust that a reader can see that. Removing “To begin” involves no loss of meaning.

“It is important to note”: Focusing on a point implies that the point is worth writing about, doesn’t it? Removing these words too involves no loss of meaning. (As an undergraduate, I often wrote “It is interesting to note,” until a professor drew a line through the words each time they appeared in an essay.)

“The theme of regret is an important theme”: It’s redundant to say that the theme is a theme. And is there any difference between “the theme of regret” and regret?

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“‘The Road Not Taken,’ which was written by Robert Frost”: Sentences with “which was written by” tend toward stuffiness. Here, the writer can refer to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” a savings of four words.

“Evidence for it can be found”: It’s often smart to avoid the passive voice (“can be found”). But changing the verb form (to “the reader can find evidence”) leaves a larger problem. If this theme is an important one in the poem, is it necessary to say that the poem contains evidence of it?

“Throughout the entire poem”: There’s no difference between “the entire poem” and “the poem,” especially when the word “throughout” is already in play.

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A writer might rethink this 39-word sentence in various ways:

Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is, above all, about regret. Evidence that the speaker second-guesses his decision is abundant. (20 words)

A careful reading of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” shows that regret runs through the poem. (17 words)

Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is a poem about regret. (11 words)

Regret colors every line of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” (11 words)

The point of unstuffing a sentence is not to simplify thought or eliminate nuances of meaning. The point is to express a thought, whatever its complexity, with clarity and concision — the real marks of good writing.

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Michael Leddy teaches college English and blogs at Orange Crate Art.

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The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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