How do I avoid being wordy?

Do you know of any exercises or something similar to help with that?

I feel, when reading my own writing, that I use "expensive" language, as we say in Portuguese, way too often.

I don't seem to be able to use colloquial speech when writing tending to just put down the first expressions that come to my mind, which is much too often too... well, it sounds snobbish.

How do I break that bad habit?

Maybe I should worry about this at the time of editing?

  • 1
    I don't have time to write up a full answer, but try writing one sentence horror stories and other heavily space limited literature.
    – Ethan
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 17:33
  • 1
    Try to stick to a 1000 word vocabulary and see how far you get?
    – PCARR
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 18:06
  • 2
    Eschew obfuscation.
    – Stephen R
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 20:22
  • 2
    Use twitter and learn the discipline of tweeting in 140 chars. Read Strunk & White
    – roblogic
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 1:08

4 Answers 4


It is the lure of the fine phrase. We all want to create fine phrases, phrases that are a thing of beauty in their own right. But the lure of the fine phrase can often lead us into the verbose and the excessively ornate.

There is nothing wrong with fine phrases. We should pull off a fine phrase whenever we can. But a fine phrase is not created by dressing an idea in finery. It is created by expressing an idea with startling economy. Most of the finest fine phrases don't contain a lot of obscure words (though the obscure word might be the most economical word in some cases), rather they put a set of ordinary words together in just the right way to capture the fullness of an idea.

Capturing the fullness of an idea is key here. It is easy to cut words out of sentence in the name of economy but often when we do that we are also cutting nuance and detail, so that we are doing less with less, rather than doing more or the same with less, which is true economy. A truly fine phrase does more with less.

So, the exercise is, can I say more with less. For any sentence you feel is too ornate or too verbose, ask yourself if you can say the same thing (all of it or more) with fewer simpler words. Often the truly fine phrase emerges from our attempts to prune back the excesses of our first attempt at a fine phrase. Sometimes an ordinary phrase is all the occasions demand. Fine phrases should say something pointed or poignant or remarkable. We don't need fine ways of saying mundane things.

  • Too true! But my problem comes not exactly from wanting to dress a given sentence, it comes from not having had many playmates of my own age when I was little. I learned how to speak with readers lol. So that often the word that comes to mind is the "expensive" one because it is the one I know or normally use. But your suggestion is a good one. I was only hoping there would be an easier way to fight this. Guess it is true, you get the best results with hard work ;) Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 16:17
  • 2
    Mark, I love your advice. Reading your comments and your thought process on how to write and how to write to appeal to a reader has been such a huge help to me and my growth. I always make sure to throw you credit when I can because you have really had that big of an impact on me. I don't believe my writing would be where it is today, had I never read and learned from your answers.
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 16:19
  • @shieldedtulip I understand not having many playmates! I grew up mostly having teachers for friends... and my books. I have spent a significant amount of time though in chat rooms and talking to people online in games, so maybe that is where my writing voice and ability to write "normal" dialogue comes into play since I have spent more time "writing" in my mind with typing and words rather than in verbal speak.
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 16:21

You will get that most people will say... worry about it when you edit! I understand how hard it is when you read something and it sounds wrong. This was my biggest challenge when I first sat down to write. Before beginning this novel, I was used to technical/academic writing. I was using words and phrases that... you just would not have in a normal conversation let alone something said by orcs.

What I ended up doing was putting my mind into the shoes of the characters and writing from that perspective and not from my thinking. For my "Co-star" so to speak, he is best friends with my main character and I model a lot of their interactions with my interactions with friends. Especially the mannerisms.

When narrating and wanting to get the right narrating voice, I think about movies/shows/stories that had a narration clipping similar to the tone I want and I emulate that into my writing. For example... At some points, I imagine the narrator of 300 when he is describing the Spartans. Mind you I have only seen that movie once or twice years ago, but there are still some narration pieces that are still very stuck in my mind because I found it so appealing. I sit and think about it, the way it made me feel, the impact it left on me. The phrasing of words. I use that tone to then describe my orc (who are emulating a spartan society for the most part).

Maybe this advice sounds really weird and maybe people who read this go, wtf is he doing, that could cause so many issues... It's hard to put it into words but this is what worked for me to shed my academic tone I once had. So far, I have had no complaints by readers about my narration voice in the book, so I would speculate that what ever I am doing works for me.

Also as a side note... any time I use a large word or a word I feel does not fit, I open my thesuaurus tab on my browser and look up other words to see how it can be worded differently. This has also greatly helped me to change the language to be more simple and more... colloquial. Just try to imagine conversations you have with friends, with family, with lovers, with enemies. Use that same tone, emotion to write conversations with similar relationships in your story.

  • 2
    I'm now imagining an orc saying they need to concatenate the attack array... Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 15:19
  • 1
    @shieldedtulip LOL bruh... you don't even know. My orc sounded like they were off to a waltz when I first did the dialogue or thought of it anyways. It was so proper that it made me cringe.
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 15:21
  • 1
    @shieldedtulip one thing I also have done is take character stereotypes and incorporate that into my story. I have my hard nosed serious guy (the main dude), his trusty side kick who provides all the laughs and tension release but is truly a beast in war, the old wise man, a growth character (someone who makes the MC grow/change) and then obviously bad guys and all that other fun stuff. From there, I go through my mental catalog of people I have interacted with/characters I have seen, and apply their personality to that character to achieve desired tone/mixture.
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 16:16
  • 3
    +1 for "worry about it when you edit!". I am also reminded of the widespread quote attributed to Blaise Pascal and later to many others (who knows where it originated): "I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time". It is common for normal writing to come out overly verbose - most of the time I can't even fit my comments into the character limit here on SE. The biggest way I ever found to improve my writing was to go back through it "with a hacksaw" and hypercritically cut things down a day or two after writing. Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 17:49
  • 1
    @DarrenRinger I have the same issue! Dang that character limit! I try to edit after I come to a stopping point or I am taking a step back to assess the story and where I am going with it. I will go back and read over the chapter/chapters and if I catch any blaring mistakes or inconsistencies, I will edit it. Some times I just put a space saver to skip over something and address it again when my subconscious gives me an idea for it.
    – ggiaquin16
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 17:53

One thing I did which REALLY helped me get punchy, crisp prose was micro-fiction. Keeping stories to 1K words or less. I used to participate in #FridayFlash, which was limited to about a thousand words for an entry.

I also saw an amazing number of entries, which further inspired me.

During that time, someone suggested reading and writing poetry. Some poets have a wonderful knack for turning tight, descriptive phrases, and wow, was it eye-opening! So, give your hand a try at writing poetry, and read as much of it as you can too.

Finally, imitation is a brilliant teacher. If you have a particular author you like, who has a style you really like and would like to match, you can take one of their passages, which had impact on you for whatever reason, and re-type it. Just...type what's on the page. Copy it, word for word. (This is, of course, for your OWN benefit, and not for show, on the web or elsewhere.)

Doing that sometimes unlocks something in the creative mind. You see what they did, why, how, and you can incorporate that technique into your own work. I personally haven't tried this, but I know at least one or two pro authors teach this as a way of learning the craft of storytelling.

I hope that helps a bit, and keep at it! :)

  • 1
    I actually did that, although not for this reason, with my favourite poem "Perpetual Motion-Philosopher's Stone" I wrote it, and do recite it to myself. He is one of my influences. But he's rather wordy as well lol. But I see what you mean. Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 20:04
  • 2
    Free-ish verse can be a highly effective medium as well. For example, make each paragraph four lines but don't follow a metric or rhyme scheme.
    – Kevin
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 22:36

Most weighty prose is the result of not using active verbs.

She started giving him a bad time about his long hair.

The verb started is weak and adds no value. Gave is also passive. Using an active verb such as chastise livens and shortens the sentence:

She chastised him about his long hair.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.