Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Fat Quiz: Not What You Think

Over the past week, I’ve been talking a lot to my nonfiction writing class about “wordiness,” and about the need to make every word count.  Today I’m giving them an in-class quiz that will ask them to rewrite wordy sentences. The majority of that quiz is copied below. These are examples taken from actual papers handed in for my classes over the years. I often refer to excess words in sentences as "fat." Thus you have the title of this post.

FAT QUIZ:  Cut the fat and/or excess words from the sentences below:

1. In our everyday lives we are always associating things with one another. For example; we study to get a better grade or we brush our teeth daily to have healthy teeth. In our daily lives we do not even realize that we are always using associative learning.

2. All this is saying is that the child may be off-putting in social surroundings, which could mean making friends for them will be harder than it is for others.

3. In many recent years, scientists have noticed a number of rare gene changes, or mutations, associated with autism.

4. In order to discover the uniformity of the human psyche I must descend into the very foundations of consciousness. 

5. In the article "Mindful Parenting Decreases Aggression, Noncompliance, and Self-Injury in Children with Autism” parents were trained on mindfulness practices and participated in the program for fifty-two weeks with their children affected by autism.

6. Watson came up with an experiment that would allow him to condition fear in little Albert by presenting a rat.

7. The reason he chose salivation was because a new method of measuring salivation using a fistula was just put in the laboratory.

8. In fact, they may live very normal lives.

9. The explanation for this is that in order to participate in lucid dreaming a person must pay close attention to the details of their dream, and therefore must live in the present moment.

Note: Other than the wordiness, most of these aren’t too bad. I could easily give examples of far worse writing from student papers. Below is what I think may be the worst sentence ever handed in to me.

“Evolution although well documented and well supported yet what one should consider is if God created everything in eternity (which one can not really fathom just like the concept of deep time) it is safe to assume that all living things even though things seem to evolve naturally over a long period of time they all was created in eternity the human mind just need time to see it transpire.”

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26 comments:

RTD said...

Ain't students' writing a wonder!

I applaud your efforts, and I like the exercise. I am going to steal it!

Have your students read Orwell's Politics and the English Language, and have them memorize the "commandments" in Strunk and White's Elements of Style.

I try to teach writers in a similar way by emphasizing correctness (all that crap students hate -- grammar, punctuation, syntax, and common sense) and brevity (get rid of all those prepositional phrases, adverbs, and other garbage).

Writing teachers are bit like Sisyphus. We keep pushing that boulder up the hill. We never reach the top. But we hang in there. So, keep pushing, Charles.

Charles Gramlich said...

RTD, we spend a fair amount of time with Elements of Style

David Cranmer said...

Papa Hemingway would be proud of your endeavors, Charles.

Richard said...

That last sentence sounds like something a 7th grader wrote.

Cutting fat is usually part of the edit process, I wonder how much of that is done anymore.

Richard said...

By the way, i disagree with RTD that adverbs are garbage.

RTD said...

Most adverbs are not needed. Yeah, I get the irony of saying "most" in that sentence.

Tom Doolan said...

Guh! That last example...Good Lord...

Ty said...

Professor, I askt you not to use my example! But nooooo, youse just had to does it, didn't you? And I still stand by my words that that evolution is'nt proved because enternity and infinitity and stuff and chocolate popcorn balls. So theres.

sage said...

Is this a psych writing class? That last sentence is a dozy...

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That last one confused me...

G said...

wow... that last sentence sure didn't evolve! good quiz, that's a great idea and a good exercise.
- Greg

Cloudia said...

You are teaching the REAL stuff! Excellent lesson, Charles




ALOHA from Honolulu
ComfortSpiral
=^..^=

Brian Miller said...

oh i could give you some examples...hey that is what they teach you in grad school by giving you minimum number of pages...ha....

tighten it up, fire for effect.

Charles Gramlich said...

David C., I would be happy with that.

Richard, we spend four or five classes doing exercises like this, sometimes with much longer paragraphs, so they'll get in the habit of editing.

RTD, Richard. I tell my students that adverbs are just another tool in the tool box. It's not the tool to use all the time, but when you need it you should use it. I tell them that you never throw out a tool

Tom, imagine reading a whole paper much like that! I did.

Ty, the students in class today were asking if I were ever going to use some of their sentences. I said, quite possibly, but I'll protect your identities.

Sage, it's a class about writing scientific papers in psychology. I let them have a wide range of topics to chose from since it's more about the writing than the subject matter per se.

Alex, yes indeed. Me as well.

Greg, we actually have a fair amount of fun with it. Students would rather rewrite other people's words than their own.

Cloudia, thankee. I appreciate it.

Brian, I call students on how some of them will deliberately write long sentences just to fill up space.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, the quiz wasn't bad, I agree. I thought it was straightforward. Your post is a reminder to keep "fat" out of my writing. More please.

Charles Gramlich said...

Prashant, I could do some more of these. I'll have to see what I've got.

Oscar said...

He/she forgot to put periods at the appropriate places and other grammatical marks. I think you had a good laugh on that sentence. That last sentence I'm talking about. And this is about as bad.

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

Excellent exercise, my friend.

Charles Gramlich said...

Oscar, I certainly have never forgotten my first attempt to read that crazy sentence.

Bernard, I enjoy it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Interesting exercise. I think wordiness is more often found in non-fiction than fiction. But just last night in my writing group someone pointed out I had made my point and still kept going. Although I am not sure if dialog can have its feet held to the flame as much as description. In this case, I want to show how the protagonist took the subject seriously.

Chris said...

You think it is draft-related? I know my initial drafts are terribly wordy at times, and then the scalpels come out; that is actually one of the more enjoyable things I find about writing. For example, the bulk of my writing lately has been for the local paper; say a 200 word record review (first draft is often around 500) or an 800 word book review or interview/profile, that always starts out over 1000. Those constraints certainly force leaner prose!

Charles Gramlich said...

Patti, interesting point. I agree it's generally a bigger problem in nonfiction than fiction but I see a lot of it in fiction too. Dialogue is a different matter since you may want to indicate a character who is wordy. But in narrative, description and action I see wordiness.

Chris, I think the issue for my students is that they tend to hand in early drafts. I'm sure it would get better with more drafts. But I think that until they 'see' what excess verbiage is like they don't really even recognize it.

the walking man said...

Why write short clipped sentences when you can run on and on and on thereby proving to the world you can or can not punctuate and are more than willing to just add words because they run off the tongue so smoothly.

Charles Gramlich said...

Mark, lost in their own disorganized thoughts.

eric1313 said...

A good exercise. I read through, thought half the sentences should not be there. Then realized that was me pushing back against what I should not be pushing against at all; the honing of my own ability to handle this language and cut out the fat.

Yer a smrt teacher, Charles! ;-) Keep on keepin' on. I need to brush up, as well.

jodi said...

Charles-I tend to write the same way as I speak-animated and wordy. Maybe it's just my style?