Digging Out Extra Details, Clauses, and Words

Writers often walk the fine line of how much information to include in a sentence. What qualifies as too much? We want to include only the details and words that will leave a central point or image clear without slowing the way.

Consider the following sentences:

On the night of December 25-26, 1776, General George Washington and the Continental Army crossed the Delaware River, a major Atlantic Coast river that borders five states, in a surprise move against the German Hessian allied mercenary forces, which were auxiliaries to the British Army, at Trenton, New Jersey, in the Battle of Trenton.

On the night of December 25-26, 1776, General George Washington led the Continental Army across the Delaware River in a surprise move against the German Hessian mercenaries supporting the British Army in the Battle of Trenton (New Jersey).

The first sentence is burdened with excessive detail. While some people might appreciate extra information about rivers and battles, most others will trudge through it in search of clarity. The second version removes obstructions to the core information.

With that in mind, let’s consider another sentence:

When I was little, my father used to take us to the circus that traveled the U.S. each year and stopped in our town for a few days, and when we went he always bought us peanuts and popcorn from a vendor who had his face painted yellow and red with different brushes and looked like he was barely an adult.

Too much detail? Probably so. How about:

When I was little, my father took us every year to the traveling circus that stopped in our town, and he always bought us peanuts and popcorn from a young-looking vendor with a yellow- and red-painted face.

By shaving unnecessary description and weeding out wordiness, we shorten the text without losing anything central the reader should know.

Too much information also can appear as superfluous subordination. Note the enclosed clauses in the following sentence: 

It was the first time I’d ever met someone (who was willing to help a stranger [who was lost] by offering a large amount of money) (that would never be returned as recompense) (that could be needed for something else).

This sentence includes four subordinate relative clauses, including a clause within a clause. They consequently overlap, which muddies the statement. We can resolve the sentence’s struggle by pruning the subordinate indicators (who, that).

It was the first time I’d met someone willing to help a lost stranger by offering a lot of money that would never be paid back although possibly needed for something else.

By reducing four subordinate clauses to one and tightening expressions, we make the sentence much easier to navigate.

Here’s another example:

The deck of the skateboard that Jennifer got for her brother, who is named Lashawn, who some say is a daredevil who never met a challenge he didn’t like, is made of maple wood that was cut from a local grove that is endangered because there are so many people who cut trees from it to build things. 

This sentence has seven subordinate clauses. Let’s once again pare it to one:

The deck of the skateboard that Jennifer got for her risk-taking brother, Lashawn, is made of maple wood from a local grove now endangered because people use it so often to build things.

Strong sentences apply economy of eloquence. By avoiding excessive detail and clauses, we write with lithe instead of weighty words—and that moves our audience farther and faster through our writing.

Pop Quiz

Using what you’ve learned in this article, try rewriting the following sentences by watching for too much description or subordination, as well as wordiness. Our answers will be possible revisions for consideration; your versions may differ.

1.  Wearing a dark suit hemmed by his tailor, who was his cousin, the executive led the members of the meeting through his goals and numbered, Arial-font outline for the following quarter, taking an occasional timeout for questions or for a sip of water.

2.  The battered boat, which was worn by so many years of rugged seafaring conditions, and which was badly in need of repair, sputtered out for yet another rickety voyage that, in this case, the crew felt, all things considered, might be its last.

3.  After finishing her dinner, which consisted of lamb chops, spiced potatoes, and hot and sour slaw, Bella called her mother, who was a cheerful, talkative woman who liked to chat on her phone that still had a dial, to discuss their plans for the following day.



Pop Quiz Answers

1. Possible revision: Wearing a dark, tailored suit, the executive led the meeting by outlining his goals for the following quarter, pausing occasionally for questions or a sip of water.

2. Possible revision: Battered by years of rugged seafaring conditions, the boat sputtered out for a voyage the crew felt might be its last.

3. Possible revision: After finishing her lamb chop dinner, Bella called her mother, a cheerful, talkative woman who still used a rotary phone, to discuss their plans for the following day.

Posted on Tuesday, October 1, 2019, at 11:00 pm

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