Style Matters #18: Tight writing is a sight to behold


While we are less economical with language in conversation than when we write, tight writing is an artform well mastered by those who write successfully for a living.

And, with the reduction in the number of copy editors (sub-editors in Australian and UK newsrooms), the task of tightening copy is beginning to fall more frequently on to the original writer/reporter. For those who write books, their hit rate with publishers – and potential remuneration – is likely to improve if their manuscripts are well-edited when submitted.

Let’s look at three ways to check whether a piece of writing is a bit “flabby”.

Firstly, are there any words in a sentence that add little or no value? Could the sentence be rephrased with fewer or shorter words?

Some examples (with tighter alternatives):

There are many politicians who would prefer a conscience vote on the issue.
Many politicians would prefer a conscience vote.

The sorts of politicians who are likely to vote for this amendment are only the ones with a strong electoral margin.
Only politicians in safe seats would vote for this amendment.

The film that we watched was one that took out an award this year at Cannes.
The film we saw won an award at Cannes this year.

The utilisation of sun beds has been the subject of intense concern by a growing number of medical experts.
More doctors have expressed intense concern over the use of sun beds.

Secondly, while repetition can be used to build suspense or create emphasis in a feature story or in fiction writing, is it necessary elsewhere or has it been overdone?

Some examples (with tighter alternatives):

When the musicians loaded their instruments into the truck, they did not remember to load their speakers.
The musicians did not load their speakers into the truck with their instruments.

After the election was over, the previously optimistic candidate was more realistic about her party’s electoral prospects.
The candidate was more realistic about her party’s prospects after the election.

It was the nineties. She moved house often. She moved four times in nine months, in fact. Finally she found a unit she loved to move into.
In the early nineties, she moved four times in nine months before finding a unit she loved.
She moved four times in nine months in the early nineties before finding a unit she loved.

Thirdly, has the writer lapsed into passive construction instead of using active voice?

Examples (with tighter alternatives):

The Cuckoo’s Calling was actually written by J.K. Rowling.
J.K. Rowling wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling.

It is believed by many people that the flu vaccine will give you a dose of influenza. But they are wrong.
Many people wrongly believe the flu vaccine gives you a dose of influenza.

The Australian continent was viewed by early explorers as a land of great potential.
Early explorers saw Australia as a land of great potential.
Early explorers saw great potential in Australia.

If you are a novice writer or news reporter, try this exercise occasionally to help you write tighter:

  • Select an average news story (something around 8-10 paragraphs is ideal)
  • Count the number of words in the entire story and see where you might begin to tighten the text
  • Ideally, this story will be less than 300 words. Now see if you can write the same story at 200 words (or two-thirds of its original length)
  • Then write it in 100 words (in the trade this is referred to as a ‘news brief’)
  • Finally, précis the story in one sentence of no more than 30 words


If you like what you’ve read here, you can see reporting4work’s similar posts at Style Matters


One response to “Style Matters #18: Tight writing is a sight to behold

  1. Glad you liked it. Do keep coming back, I’ll be writing more about tighter writing in coming posts.

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