Tightening means cutting extra words, all those that don't contribute to your message. Inexperienced writers often use far more words than necessary. They don't attach enough value to the individual word.

Make every word work.

As a result, the writing appears cluttered. The central ideas are hard to focus on because unimportant words get in the way. Let's look at an example:

All my intentions were is to experience prison from the inside looking out and not from the outside looking in. I knew if I played my cards right and if the opportunity presented itself I wouldn't hesitate or be afraid to experience a short period behind bars, walls, fences, or prison for that matter in order to get an insider's view.

The idea here is interesting, but obscured by clutter. We could easily cut some excess. Maybe a little meaning is lost, but nothing crucial, and notice how much more smoothly it reads:

My intentions were to experience prison from the inside, and I wasn't afraid to spend a short period behinds bars to get an insider's view.

And we could tighten it even more:

I wasn't afraid to spend a short time behind bars just for the experience.

The sixty-one words in the first version have been cut to fourteen. Not all writing can be tightened this much, but most early drafts profit by being trimmed to the essentials. Not only does the meaning become clearer, the writing gets easier to read, more vivid and lively. As a hidden bonus, many grammatical problems eliminate themselves during tightening since they're as often caused by clutter as by broken rules.

One way to tighten is to join several short sentences into a longer one:

I have always had this one dream. My dream has been to be a famous writer. Everyone would read my books. I would become very wealthy.

This could all be made into one sentence:

I have always dreamed of being a wealthy, famous writer, read by everyone.

Besides cutting five words, we've eliminated the choppy rhythm, creating a more fluid and mature sentence. Tightening isn't hard, although there is a kind of knack to it, and a person gets better with practice. The following suggestions may help:

1. Look for words that don't do their share of work:

Change: There's a light on the scoreboard that flashes on and off.
to: The scoreboard light flashes on and off.

2. Use strong verbs:

Change: In a cautious manner the car went around the corner.
to: The car negotiated the corner.

3. Don't pile up modifiers in front of nouns:

Change: He was a weak, timid sort of individual.
to: He was a mouse.

4. Make the agent the subject:

Change: The report was read to us by Mr. Coleman.
to: Mr. Coleman read us the report.

5. Keep it clear and simple:

Change: Bluegrass music might be said to have certain qualities which render it in a disagreeable light to a clear majority of my peers.
to: Most of my friends don't like bluegrass music.

6. Try combining several short sentences into a longer one:

Change: I have this beautiful watch. It is silver. It was given to me by my father. He gave it to me last year.
to: Last year my father gave me this beautiful silver watch.

The aim in every case is to make your writing more smooth and vivid, more expressive of your meaning. In fact, that's the aim of revision in general: to make every word work.


3.6 Tighten the following sentences. As you do, remember that any of several possibilities may work well. Sometimes you will find that many words can be cut out, other times only a few. Compare your revisions with those of your classmates.

a. Several unnecessary words can be cut here. They can be cut by combining the two sentences together into one single sentence.

b. My last English teacher was somewhat more advanced in age than my present English teacher. His hair had turned mostly gray, but it still had some black flecks left in it.

c. We are going to North Carolina and West Virginia. Both of these are very beautiful states located in the southeastern portion of the country.

d. If a person looking for a job has a good physical appearance, a job in general will be easier to find. This is because an employer wants a person who is neat looking in appearance.

e. Well, it seems I kind of got off the track of what I was intending to write about, but I don't really much care.

f. Regular gasoline is what is needed to make my car run. This fact makes my car an economical car, so practical and inexpensive at this time of rising prices and inflation.

g. It even seems as though these two specimens could possibly be of the same species because of the color coordination and also because of how the shapes are similar.

h. Because of the great amount of people in such a small area, there is of course a high amount of crime in this same area.

i. In the fall of the year is the time when Jim likes to go hunting for elk. It is during that season that Jim heads off into the woods armed with his gun and his camera. In many cases Jim's camera gets more use than his gun does.

j. The average person, male or female, who is in good physical condition likes to let others know it. Whether it be on the beach with a muscle man shirt on or in the park with shorts on, people in good shape will let you know they are in shape.

3.7 Go back over an early draft of a paper you wrote and cut all unnecessary words. Don't cut any that carry important meaning, just those that only take up space. Then exchange your paper with a partner and see if you agree on your decisions. Can you find more words that should be cut? Can you find some that shouldn't have been cut?