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How to unpad your writing to make it stronger and clearer

How to unpad your writing to make it stronger and clearer

Today I’m writing about a topic close to my heart: unpadding. This is a term that I’ve come up with to describe a phenomenon that occurs frequently in writing—at the moment, it’s the most common feedback I give to writers whose work I’m editing.

Writers pad their work with unnecessary words or phrases—and shortly I’ll get into what kinds of padding happens (and how to stop it). But first I want to talk briefly about why I think padding happens, because these reasons are important to recognise if you’re a writer.

I think that padding happens because you’re scared of something. You’re scared of having an opinion that comes across too strongly, or you’re scared of being too direct, or you just think your writing should be longer than it is to make it feel substantial and important.

And all that is understandable, but it leads to bad writing that’s chock-full of words that don’t need to be there. 

@@Three ways to 'unpad' your writing to make it stronger@@

By padding your writing, you’re making it weaker and less enjoyable to read, and you’re diluting your message. 

Below is an example of a padded paragraph. Note that I have made this paragraph a lot more padded than anything you’d write or read (hopefully!) for the purposes of editing. 

Padded paragraph: 

When innovators start new projects or get involved with existing ones, it is because they truly believe in the vision behind the project. Innovators understand that projects thrive on account of the fact that they have vision. They make sure that they quickly invest in the really necessary tools and people to run business operations. Innovators bring in teams with top-level experts who can come in and put the systems in place to make the business run optimally. It is also a true fact that innovators often know when to ask for help—they collaborate together with their advisors when they need to. Innovators basically know that asking for help is not a weakness but rather a skill. Reinventing the wheel is not something innovators generally spend time doing.

So, how do we make this paragraph a million times better? Here are three easy ways.

 

1. Get rid of weasel words

Weasel words are the essence of padding. They’re words that we stick into our writing to dilute the message. Sometimes they wiggle their way in when we’re writing as we’d speak, because we use weasel words in speech to buy ourselves time to figure out what we’re going to say next. Again, understandable, but not necessary when you’re writing. 

Weasel words are words like actually, basically, essentially, virtually, just, and quite. There are a lot of other ways you can be weaselly in your writing, but we’re just going to talk about these sorts of words today. 

So. Weasel words dilute your message, and you don’t want to dilute your message! 

Example with weasel words: I want to basically start a blog that essentially helps people with their writing.

Unpadded example: I want to start a blog that helps people with their writing.

You can see the difference there, right?

So, how do you get rid of them? Get to know your weasel words. Become aware that they exist, that you’re definitely using them (everyone does), and then remember to pick them out when they pop up in your writing. 

Can you find any weasel words in the padded paragraph? (Find my suggestions at the bottom of this post.)

 

2. Get rid of redundant phrases

Redundant phrases are pretty self-explanatory—they’re phrases that contain words that mean the same thing. Some include reason why (doubling up), past experience (an experience must be in the past), and very unique (if something’s unique, it’s unique—it can’t be very unique). Again, they make your writing weaker, because they add words and only serve to confuse your reader. 

Can you find any redundant phrases in the padded paragraph? (Find my suggestions at the bottom of this post.)

 

3. Get rid of wordiness

Even though weasel words and redundant phrases are both types of wordiness, there’s also general wordiness that you can cut out. Unless it’s going to change the meaning, if you can condense and tighten your writing, it’s always for the best. 

So, what am I talking about when I say wordiness? Here’s an example from the first sentence, which could be improved simply by cutting out some words. 

So, instead of: When leaders start new projects or get involved with existing ones

It could be: When leaders start or join projects

See the difference? All those extra words are doing nothing, so you can get rid of them. If you can say it in one word, say it in one, not three.

@@If you can say it in one word, say it in one, not three.@@

An interesting note on wordiness: I think there’s an opportunity for removing wordiness in the final three words of the padded paragraph (spend time doing). This could just be cut to do and we wouldn't lose meaning. However, if I were editing this paragraph, I probably wouldn’t make that change—even though you don’t lose meaning, I think you lose something else. The phrase spend time doing foregrounds the idea of wasting time, which is an important thing to consider in the context of the paragraph. Replacing that with do removes that reference to time. 

So, what I’m getting at is that you can edit too much, and you have to use your best judgement.

Can you find examples of wordiness in the padded paragraph? (Find my suggestions at the bottom of this post.)

 

How can you remember it all?

If all that sounds like a lot to remember, my top tip is to create a personal proofreading checklist. I’ve written about this strategy before, and I really can’t recommend it enough. If you’d like help getting your checklist started, I also offer a free proofreading checklist in my library (sign up to get access). 

I hope these tips help you to unpad your writing! If you have any questions, please feel free to comment below or tweet me.

PS: Here are my suggestions! Note: You could go much further with this paragraph—it’s still not at its best even with the edits below. But what’s below is a start, using only the tips in this blog post.

Key for edits:

  • WW = weasel word
  • R = redundant phrase (with the word I'd remove crossed out and the arrow pointing to the word that makes the crossed-out word redundant)
  • WO = wordiness

@@How to unpad your writing to make it stronger and clearer@@

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