1.4- Cut the clutter
I think we have adequate scientific evidence to state that increased athletic activity lowers cardiovascular risk and blood pressure and improves. And i just want to acknowledge and thank Debra Biasca of the University of Colorado, Boulder who shared some writing examples and physics with me that appear in my slides. Here's another example, this is a perfectly good sentence it reads brain injury incidents shows two peak periods in almost all reports rates are the highest in young people and the elderly, that's fine.
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In this next module, Im going to teach you how to cut clutter from your writing. Im going to start with one of my favorite quotes from William Zinssers clasic writing book “On Writing Well”. This is a great book to read for this course if you have time. He says, the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning That’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what. These are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to the education and rank. And I find this last part especially amusing Since I do teach many people who are highly educated and high in rank. Today, we’re going to practice stripping sentences of all this kind of clutter. I’m going to jump right in here with an example sentence that needs to be stripped of clutter. It reads: “This paper provides a review of”… The basic tenants of cancer biology study design, using as examples studies that illustrate the methodologic challenges or that demonstrates successful solutions to the difficulties inherent in biological research. You can hear when I’m reading this sentence out loud That there a lot of extra, unnecessary words in there. I’m going to go through this word by word now. And show just you how much we can cut. First, this paper provides a review of This is an instance where we’ve taken a nice spunky verb, to review, and turned it into a boring noun, a review. And then paired it with a boring verb, provides. So we can just change this back to the verb by saying this paper reviews. Then we get to of the basic tenets of. Well, this is one of those vague amorphous phrases that doesn’t add anything for the reader. It doesn’t help the reader understand what is going on here, so we can just cut it. So we get this paper reviews cancer biology study design, using as examples studies that illustrate. When I read that That out loud, you can hear how awkward it is, and you can hear the repetition. The word examples means the same thing as studies. We don’t need both. So I’m just going to get rid of studies, and say using examples that illustrate. Then we get to methodologic challenges. Well that word, methodologic, is again one of those vague amorphous words that’s so broad that it adds nothing for the reader. We’ve already said that we’re talking about study design, so methodology is implied. And notice we have a repetition here. We have illustrate which means the same thing as demonstrate. And I always picture that the author was sitting there and thinking well I already used the word illustrate. I don’t want to repeat myself. So I’m going to go to the thesaurus, and find a second word that means the same thing. And they found demonstrate. Okay, if you catch yourself reaching for the thesaurus, to avoid repeating a word, Always ask yourself, Do I even need the second instance of that word at all? Oftentimes, you simply don’t need the second instance of the word. In this case, the illustrate can carry over to both the challenges and the solutions. We can just say using examples that illustrate both challenges and solutions. I am also going to strike out the word successful here did you notice that? think about it, is there such a thing as an unsuccessful solution? Solution. there isn’t right? The adjective successful is already inherent in the word solution. So we don’t need to say successful solutions because solution implies successful. Then we get to this last part. To the difficulties inherent in biological research. We have another repetition here. We already said challenges and now we’re saying difficulties. Again, I’m picturing that author that has gone to the thesaurus to avoid repeating the word challenges and they find difficulties, but just like before, we don’t need that repetition at all. We also have this “inherent in biological research”. I don’t think adds anything, because we already know that we’re talking about biological study design. Biological research is there for just a repetition, so I’m going to take out this entire last bit. So we get this paper reviews cancer biology study design, using examples that illustrate specific challenges and solutions. Notice how we strip that sentence of all the garbage to get it down just to the important words, just to the words that get the idea across. Alright here’s a second example. As it is well known Increased athletic activity has been related to a profile of lower cardiovascular risk, lower blood pressure levels, and improved muscular and cardio-respiratory performance. You can see again that this sentence has a lot of extra words. It starts with As it is well known. This is an introductory phrase that you simply don’t need. It’s just the authors clearing their throat at the beginning of a sentence. We can strike that all together. If you want to indicate that something is well-known, just indicate that by putting citations, by putting references at the end of the sentence. Then we get increased athletic activity has been related to, this is just stylistic, but I kind of prefer is associated with. I like that better. And then we get to a profile of lower cardiovascular risk. Well, a profile of, again, is one of those vague phrases that just doesn’t add anything. We don’t lose anything by crossing that out and just saying lower cardiovascular risk. Then we get to lower blood pressure levels. Well, again, that word levels is not necessary. We can just say lower blood pressure. And finally, we get to improved muscular and cardio-respiratory performance. Well, that’s just a fancy way of saying fitness. So I’m just going to cross all of that out and just say what I mean, which is fitness. So we get increased athletic activity is associated with lower cardiovascular risk Lower blood pressure and improved fitness. Notice how much clutter we’ve stripped away from that sentence. In this example though, I think we could even be more direct. I think we have adequate scientific evidence to state that increased athletic activity lowers cardiovascular risk and blood pressure and improves. Fitness. Of course this requires a higher level of evidence but I do think we can confidently say that exercise does have these direct effects. Here’s one last example. The experimental demonstration is the first of its kind. And is a proof of principle for the concept of laser driven particle acceleration in a structure loaded vacuum. We’ll jump right into this one. I think instead of the experimental demonstration, we can just say the experiment. Then we get to is the first of its kind and is a proof of principle. Notice that we get two to be verbs, is and is. Those are boring verbs so maybe we can try to put a ber verb in there. We also get the, first of it’s kind, and proof of principle. I think those are repetitive. It’s kind of the same thing. So I’m going to change this to the experiment provides The first proof of principle just condense that the first proof of principle. Then we get to for the concept of laser driven particle acceleration, I dont think we need the for the concept of, that’s just extra words. So that’s just a proof of principle of laser driven particle acceleration. So we can get this one down to the experiment provides the first proof of principle of laser-driven particle acceleration in a structre-loaded vacuum. And i just want to acknowledge and thank Debra Biasca of the University of Colorado, Boulder who shared some writing examples and physics with me that appear in my slides. All right, I want you to get in the habit of cutting unnecessary words. You have to be vigilant and ruthless. Cutting your words is really hard, because you’ve invested all this effort to get your words on the page. You’ve wrestled with the sentence. It feels like you’re negating that effort by going back and throwing those words away. Also, you may have read the sentence over in your head so many times that it starts to sound good. It starts to sound I’m like this is just the way it should be. Well, you’re going to have to fight against this inertia and this complacency. You’re going to have to actively train yourself to go back and take out all those unnecessary words. Try taking out all the extra words. Read the sentence and see how it’s better. See how it conveys the same idea with more power. What I always tell students Is that you have the undo key as a crutch. You have the control Z, or the equivalent on a mac. So you can take those words out, read the sentence without them. if you don’t like the new version, you can always control Z them back in. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done this myself. I’ve said Well, I really like that word very in there. I don’t want to take it out. But I convinced myself to try the sentence without it, knowing that I could always control + z the word back in. And I’ve never put the word back in. It’s always better without it. Here’s another example, this is a perfectly good sentence it reads brain injury incidents shows two peak periods in almost all reports rates are the highest in young people and the elderly, that’s fine. But compare that to brain injury incidence peaks in the young and the elderly. See how much crisper, how much more power that second sentence has when we get rid of all the unnecessary words? Here are some common sources of clutter that you should be on the lookout for. First of all, dead weight words and phrases. As it is well known, as it is has been shown, it can be regarded that, it should be emphasized that. This is just the authors clearing their throats. They can be deleted all together. Just provide citations to show that it’s well known. Also, look out for empty words and phrases. these kinds of words don’t add anything because they’re so vague and empty. and I love this quote from William Zinsser, he says, some words and phrases are blobs. And that’s really true, some words and phrases are so amorphous. They don’t add anything. Also, look out for long words or phrases that could be short. Remember, muscular and cardiorespiratory performance, that’s just a fancy way to say fitness. You might as well use the short version. Look out for unnecessary jargon and acronyms. Muscular and cardiorespiratory performance again. Gliomagenesis, we saw that in an earlier module. miR, the use of acronyms. We want to avoid acronyms unless they’re completely standard and well known throughout science. We also want to get rid of any extra repetition. We saw some examples of this earlier. We saw studies. Example Illustrate and demonstrate. Challenges and difficulties. Successful solutions. That’s an example where the adjective repeats what’s in the noun. So watch out for that kind of repetition. Finally, watch out for adverbs. Everybody loves to put in adverbs when they’re talking in emails or on a first draft. You’ll notice that I love adverbs in speaking but in your writing I’m going to ask you to go back and take those out because they’re almost never useful. They’re just extra weight in your sentence. You are not making your idea or statement more powerful by adding that adverb. In fact, you’re losing power. So, I want you to cut all those adverbs very, really, quite, basically, generally, and so on. Here are a few more examples of long words and phrases that could be short. I have tons of these examples, and we’ll do some more for homework. A majority of, that could just be most. A number of, that’s just many. Are of the same opinion, I love that one, that’s just agree. Less frequently occurring, just say rare. All three of the, just say the three, you don’t need the all. Give rise to, that’s caused. ‘Due to the fact that’ that’s just because, ‘have an effect on’ that’s affect; you the idea. These words and phrases don’t carry the main idea of the sentence, so they’re just slowing your reader down. When you choose a long version when a short version would have done the same job. Here’s an example that has a long phrase that could be shortened. The expected prevalence of mental retardation, based on the assumption that intelligence is normally distributed, is about 2.5%. Well, another way to say based on the assumption of, is just to say if. If intelligence is normally distributed. Here’s an example of repetition. This sentence has a repetition in it. A robust cell-mediated immune response is necessary. A deficiency in this response predisposes and individual towards active TB. Notice how the two parts of this sentence actually say the same thing. One part says it’s necessary, the other part says Is that bad things will happen if you don’t have it. So we can convey the same idea here if we just say, “Deficiency in T-cell-mediated immune response predisposes an individual to active TB”. We don’t need the first part of that sentence. Here’s a quote to end on… On cutting clutter. This is a great quote. Pascal says I have only made this letter rather long because I have not had time to make it shorter. My French is a little rusty so I won’t try to pronounce it in French. That’s where the elegance in your writing comes in. Now most of you probably had courses in high school or college where you were told that you had to fill some minimum number of pages, maybe a ten page report. And at that age you probably did not have anywhere near ten pages of ideas. So you started to learn to pad your writing with a lot of extra words. You picked up this bad habit. Now I want you to break yourself of this habit and learn to strip your writing of everything that isn’t necessary. Get it down to the key ideas. When you convey your ideas with the fewest words possible, your writing is more readable, engaging and powerful. And a former student in this course, John Hodges, was kind enough to find the original reference to this quote and shared it with me, so I want to share the original text with you here. Thanks, John, for digging this up.
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