There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than to find the middle ground between formal and informal writing.
Well, in these articles, as The Study Dude, I’ll try to give you the study tips you need to help make your learning easier. I’ll also give you straight and honest opinions and personal anecdotes?even the embarrassing ones that you wouldn’t ever dare read about from any other study tip guru.
This week’s Study Dude starts fresh with Stephen Wilber’s book Mastering the Craft of Writing: How to Write with Clarify, Emphasis, & Style. Have you ever wondered when to omit the word “that” and when to leave it in? If so, this article will answer that and more.
Too Obfuscated? The Right Amount of Formality in Your Essays
If you’ve read past Study Dude articles, you should know that I adore Dr. Helen Sword, an author and advocate of clear academic writing. And you might also know that best-seller Steven Pinker endorses Helen Sword and also idealizes clear writing.
Helen prefers writing with punchy verbs and fewer multisyllabic nouns (which she calls zombie nouns).
But, I had some apprehensions. For instance, don’t universities require you to use multisyllabic stuffy nouns? And don’t universities give you higher grades when you show off a vocabulary known only to you and the editors at Oxford?
Well, I have found an answer to those questions: one that helps you flaunt a great vocabulary without muddling your message.
Helen and Steven would be proud.
Stephen Wilber lets you know when a bigger vocabulary serves you best:
– Simpler words don’t necessarily mean “easy” words. Instead, simpler words are the most precise words.
– (But if you are writing for the GMAT or some other standardized test, use stuffy multisyllabic nouns. You’ll get higher grades.)
– Bigger words don’t lead to better writing. But do expand your vocabulary as much as possible.
– Why expand your vocabulary? Because some words are just more precise in certain sentences. Instead of saying “I read a wide breadth of material for tons of hours every day,” say, “I read extensively.”
– If you slip in a big word just to sound impressive, then you probably used a poor choice.
– Instead of writing a wordy, stuffy sentence, make it more precise. And avoid using clichés.
– Strike a balance between a formal and an informal tone. Find the middle ground. Instead of “It is concerning to the authorities whether the grandiose claims of the most economically well-to-do citizens are more prominent than the claims proposed by those announced by the economically burdened citizens,” say, “The authorities are concerned whether the claims of the wealthy overshadow those of the poor.”
– Use more precise words. Instead of saying “unquestionably nebulous and without merit” (p. 29), say “unwarranted.”
– Say “babble” instead of “talked incoherently.”
Get the Details… But don’t Overdo Them
Has anyone ever commented that you should “show” instead of “tell”? I puzzled over such a comment. So, I peered at some advanced writing books that talk about showing scenes from a character’s point-of-view. Yet, I didn’t quite grasp how to show instead of tell.
Many fiction-writing books advise on “showing” through seeing the world as the character immediately senses and experiences it: “He slowly pulled the sheet over his head while letting out a long groan, blinding himself from the morning image of his wife’s hairy pits and mascara-stained eye-sockets.”
Wilbers comes up with a simpler formula for “showing” instead of “telling”:
– Instead of saying “She saw the sunrise,” add some juicy detail: “She saw the Valentine-red sun spill its color onto the overhead storks and the below rippling ocean.
– Instead of saying, “I do certain exercises every day,” spice it up with specifics: “Every day, I bench press 90 kilos and hammer curl until I sweat.”
– Instead of saying, “The people voted for Brexit,” again, add detail: “The tight race for Brexit was secured by a 2% vote in favor of leaving.”
– Use powerful verbs. Name people and places. Use alliteration (such as a “ferocious feline followed me”). Sensory details create a “show” not “tell” feel.
When to Omit “That”
Whenever I use the word “that,” I often think it sounds unskilled. Moreover, I think the sentence sounds better without it. Yet, I also wonder if removing the word “that” would make the sentence ungrammatical. You see, I wondered if removing “that” sometimes created two independent clauses connected without a period: “He was sure that [.] he got it right.”
But, after reading Wilbers, I realize that I can usually drop “that” when the sentence sounds better without it.
Wilber’s explains when the ins-and-outs of when and when not to use the word “that”:
– Delete “that” to tighten your sentences, and keep “that” to add clarity.
– For instance, cut out “that” in sentences like “I recommend that you take an umbrella.” In other words, just say, “I recommend you take an umbrella.” By deleting “that,” you tighten up your sentence.
– However, you want to keep the word “that” for most “thinking verbs”: “I thought that you liked my articles.” Thinking words include “believe,” “decide,” and “realize.” Again, keep “that” after thinking verbs.
– The reason why, for instance, you would keep the word “that” following “believe” is simple. “I believe Susan didn’t read the Bible” can initially confuse the reader as to whether you believe Susan or you believe Susan didn’t read the Bible.
– Most of the times you can cut out “that,” but sometimes leaving it in makes the sentence clearer. For instance, you could say, “I worry Susan doesn’t understand the problem” can initially sound like you cause Susan worry: “I worry Susan…” If leaving out “that” leads to ambiguity, then leave it in.
So, there’s nothing to fear. The Study Dude is determined to make right for you all the wrongs I made in grad school?one A+ at a time.
Wilbers, Stephen. (2014). Mastering the Craft of Writing: How to Write with Clarify, Emphasis, & Style. Blue Ash, OH: Writer’s Digest Books.