Tightening up your sentences – cut the bloat


We all know what bloat is. If something is bloated it is swollen, puffed up, flabby, distended, enlarged. Right now, we probably associate bloat with eating too much over the festive season. But bloat also happens in academic writing.

A lot of academic writing is on the bloated side. You can pick up almost any academic journal and find papers where whole paragraphs are stuffed to the gills with excess phrases and words. Of course, academic writing is not the only kind of writing that suffers from word-inflation. Legal and bureaucratic writing over-indulges in the same wordy overkill as some academic writing.

And when a supervisor or reviewer suggests that academic writing needs to be tightened up, it’s likely that they are actually saying that they’ve noticed a lot of bloat. They’ve met a text that takes up too much space – and much more time than they wanted to spend.

You see, wordy prose puts readers off. Perhaps they simply can’t be bothered to wade through volumes of verbage and so they just give up. But even when they do read on, as supervisors and reviewers must, they find sentences that are blown up to balloon size. Such sentences are very hard to digest.

Over extended sentences need trimming back, deflating, shrinking. They need a good edit. They need to be cut back and cut short. Made sharp and shiny.

But what does that mean? What does tightening up the writing look like? Well, let me give you an example. Here are two sentences taken from a research report.

While some interviewees felt that YEI procurement processes had worked reasonably well, a notable theme was the length of time taken from launching calls for proposals to the signature of funding agreements. Many interviewees stated that this had significantly impacted on their delivery plans, and some providers mentioned that delays would lead to an underspend due to changes in the local match funding available in the time period concerned. 70 words

These seventy words contain a far bit of bloat. Here is my first prune.

Some interviewees felt that the YEI procurement processes had worked reasonably well. However, many interviewees stated it had taken too long to get from the launch of calls for proposals to funding agreements being signed and this had significantly impacted on their delivery plans. Some providers mentioned that delays meant decreases in local match funding and thus a potential underspend.  60 words

In this first edit, I attempted to clarify the meaning of the two sentences. As in: while some people thought something was OK (sentence one), a lot didn’t and they gave reasons (sentence two).

My second edit streamlined the second sentence reasons further.

Some interviewees felt that the YEI procurement processes had worked reasonably well. However, many were concerned that delays in finalising agreements would not only lead to delayed services for young people but also to decreases in local match funding. Thus  targets would be missed and projects underspent. 47 words

Now, of course I could go on finessing these sentences, perhaps by getting rid of that ‘not only but also’. I could keep pruning and refining, until the prose is trim, taught and terrific. But I’m sure I don’t need to – you get the point. There was a 23 word bloat in the original two sentences which wasn’t too hard to remove.

Here’s another example of tightening up aka eradicating bloat – the original text is from another government research report.

This qualitative fieldwork was carried out with individuals living across England and Scotland in order to obtain the views of research participants in different areas of the UK, as well as those representing a range of different organisations. It is important to point out that the views of the participants were not intended to be representative of wider populations. Nevertheless, the key themes across participants were resoundingly similar, providing a measure of confidence that findings would resonate across the wider population.  81 words

And here’s my first rewrite.

To obtain views from different areas of the UK, qualitative fieldwork was carried out with research participants who represented a range of different organisations in England and Scotland. Participants were not intended to be representative, but the resounding similarity of themes suggest that findings would resonate across the wider population. 49 words.

I changed the first sentence to clarify meaning – the point of the sentence goes at the start. The second and third sentences were combined in order to make clear that ‘this is the case but this is the case too’. A lot of words have been lost in this first edit – 32 in total. A 32 word bloat is quite a lot. And I could keep going on these two sentences, changing the first sentence from passive to active voice in order to produce some variety, and getting rid of the current clumsy read. But I’m sure you get the picture.

In both my examples, I’ve reduced words. A lot. With not much effort. I’ve got rid of at least some bloat and not lost what the writer was trying to say.

Why not give your readers a break too? Exercise your red pen. Remember – a first cut gets rid of bloat, and then the work is to refine the writing. 

Tighten up. No-one misses the bloat!

(And PS. There’s a difference between repetition for ‘voice’ – and bloat! Another post.)