Revising for Clarity and Brevity: A Worksheet Activity

This week, in a course for new college students, I decided to bring out one of my all-time favorite writing activities. This exercise has proven particularly effective for first-year students, especially if they’re reasonably comfortable writers already. It’s a strangely fun activity designed to teach a critical part of editing: cutting unnecessary words and simplifying complex phrases.

I distributed a worksheet with a single 26-word sentence on it.

This sentence came from a highly regarded historical monograph. It was written by a distinguished historian and released by a major university press. I won’t identify the source here because I have no desire to shame this author in public. As I told my students, it’s a great book. It’s just unnecessarily hard to get through.

I chose the sentence partly because it has some obvious redundant language—unnecessary complexity that many readers can spot quickly when they think about it.

The worksheet I distributed looked sort of like this:

"Lorem ipsum a diam maecenas sed enim ut sem viverra
aliquet eget sit amet tellus cras adipiscing 'enim'

eu turpis egestas pretium aenean pharetra magna ac."

Original TextImproved Version
a) "Lorem ipsum a diam maecenas sed enim ut sem viverra

b) aliquet eget sit amet tellus cras adipiscing 'enim'

c) eu turpis egestas pretium aenean pharetra magna ac."

— [citation]

The worksheet is almost self-explanatory. After handing it out, I simply asked students to cut as many words as possible from each of the three chunks of text without changing its meaning. They could do this by eliminating words; by replacing words; by rearranging words or thoughts; or by completely rewriting the text.

Within a few minutes, several students were eager to share what they’d accomplished. When I asked who had a shorter version of Section A, several hands shot up. More than one student had found a way to cut the original ten words down to just two.

Each time the class come up with new proposed wording, I asked whether the original meaning had been preserved. This led to discussions about the nuances of the original text. Students identified its ambiguities, ways missing context might shape its meaning, and the judgment calls necessary to ignore connotations that the original words conveyed.

Eventually, we had worked through all three chunks of text and could consider whether we had a final combined sentence that was better than the original. In some of our proposed versions, the original 26-word sentence had just six or seven words. The final judgment: These shorter versions were easier to understand and probably conveyed a more precise meaning than the original.

I had one surprise left, though. I asked students whether this sentence, now that we understood it better, turned out to be a tautology—an example of circular reasoning. Had it needed to be written at all? (This was the other reason I chose the original sentence.)

That was a fun final trick to play.

Fundamentally, the activity works because of the chunking process. It’s critical to invite students to focus on one part at a time, not the whole sentence, and then to put the sentence back together again. Each chunk is an incomplete thought—a noun and a verb, a verb and an object—so that students don’t start by trying to decipher the whole stultifying mass. This is how mysterious prose becomes a puzzle that can be solved even by relatively inexperienced academic readers.

And that is how this editing exercise teaches students they already have skills they may not be aware of—and how it helps them figure out how to decipher other peoples’ bad academic writing, to boot.