Danger: Flowery writing may suffocate

A lesson to help students write concise sentences


William Love, Standpoint High School

My inclination with writing is to include as many unneeded phrases as possible. It wasn’t until I started teaching journalism that I started to stress conciseness in my writing. It takes training and practice to develop the Hemingway touch.

It is when I covered the University of Idaho football team as a freelancer that I started focusing on conciseness. Before emailing the game story to my editors, I read each sentence carefully. My goal was to add strong verbs and eliminate the unnecessary words.

I use a quick lesson to introduce the power of verbs to my journalism students. My hope is to teach them to self-edit for conciseness.

Before this lesson, the students have identified differences between a news story and english essay. So to start this lesson I provide them a quote and have the students respond to two questions.

“Concise writing empowers readers, flowery writing can suffocate them.”

  • What does this mean?
  • Can you think of a situation where “flowery writing” suffocate you? Explain the situation.

We then read and discuss another quote I found about writing on Twitter. I point out that many of them already self-edit with conciseness in mind. After we read the quote, I ask them to identify other styles of writing that force the author to be concise.

“There’s a funny assumption that if you write in 140 characters for Twitter it suddenly means you have lost the ability to write in any other way, as if the brain only has room for one kind of writing. It’s just one out of dozens of ways to write. If you take it as a challenge it can hone your skills as a writer. One of the cardinal rules of style is omit needless words. That’s what Twitter forces you to do.

After the discussion, students watch the TED-Ed video “The Power of Simple Words” by Terin Izil.

Terin Izil for TED-Ed

We then discuss a way students can omit needless words is to strike adverbs and allow verbs to do their job. I show them some examples, including a few they have identify on their own.

  • Debate team members are extremely happy to qualify for state.
  • Students screamed loudly when Marshawn Lynch entered the gym.

Finally, the students do an Mad Libs-style exercise that shows them verbs do a lot on their own. They rewrite a simple sentence five time with five different verbs.

Concise 1

When they are done, students share their sentences and explain what this tells the reader about John.

They do this at least one more time. This time they need verbs that identify how a crowd reacts to a made shot at the end of a game.

Concise 2

I like this one because it illustrates the power one word can have. The crowd’s reaction provides us with a sense of where Johnson made her winning shot — at home or on the road.

I’ve found students have fun with this lesson and activities. If you have lessons or tips on teaching conciseness, please share them in the Comments section.