CRAFT: The Warning Signs of Throat Clearing by Sue Baldwin-Way

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Ahem. Harrumph. Ghack.

If only a writer’s throat clearing were that obvious.

I collect and edit stories written by others for prospective students and published on the web, and I adapt the pieces for alumni readers of a print magazine. There are plenty of references and resources about writing for the web and the journey from print to digital publishing. My challenge is to take web stories and make them print worthy.

Digital publishing allows more latitude for length. Most of the writers I know find it easier to write longer than shorter. And designers I’ve worked with in the last decade are more likely to accommodate copy than ask for cuts or limit word counts, which I attribute to both their training and the “stretchiness” of digital design.

Print forces text economy. Even with the attendant costs of online publishing (nothing in life is free), the consequence of ink on a page is crystal clear: more words lead to more pages; more pages mean that costs will rise. In print, word count matters. And without the links and rollovers and embedded video of the digital world, white space and use of images in print become important pacing and directional elements in visual communication. It’s not an “everything that fits we print” world—every word counts.

Of course, every word should always count—publishing-platform-neutral. Whether memoir, nonfiction, or fiction, writing has purpose. And no matter where a piece appears, making every word count keeps the writing strong, concise, and worthy of the reader’s time.

It’s hard to pare down good prose and the meat of the story, so my first swipe is at the easy cuts. I call them the throat clearings and they are the warm-ups, the wind-ups, the bridges. I’ve concluded that writers lean on them to get started, to keep their writing moving, or to bridge to the reader, conversationally. But when space is at a premium, it helps to be able to spot them, weigh their value to the story, and edit accordingly.

How do you spot them? For me, if I have trouble getting into the writing, if my attention drifts, or if the pace seems interrupted or lagging, I look for the frogs in the writer’s throat. Many of them fall into categories:

False starts

Sadly for the writer who struggled mightily with the first line or paragraph, often throat clearing is right up front. I look for anything that gets in the way of setting a reader on an engaging path. If the voice inside my head is saying, “Don’t tell me what I already know,” there might be a frog. And words like “daunting” or “abound” might signal an overgeneralization. Those can usually go.

Letting your work show

As writers we’re curious, we research the details. We write to learn; we write to clarify. I’ve spent hours perfecting an explanation, only to realize that I’m simply letting my research show. If I’m thinking, “Do I need to know this?” or “Are we getting anywhere?” or if a section feels like it would be a link on the web or a sidebar in print—it might just be throat clearing.

Too many words

Even in the interest of precision or accuracy, too many descriptors, weak verbs, repetitions or redundancies, and qualifiers can also get in the reader’s way. Sometimes I think the writer is reluctant to choose the best word.

Did you cringe when you read this sentence: “Whether memoir, nonfiction, or fiction, writing has purpose,”?

I hope so, because I (writer) can have confidence that you (reader interested in writing) are familiar with writing forms and intentions. “Writing has purpose” is probably sufficient when space is at a premium.

Needless buildups or empty phrases

Self-conscious phrases that stall or slow the pace are not always inappropriate, but may be worth evaluating:

  • “It is important that…”
  • “It is clear that…”
  • “A key consideration…”
  • “It is essential…”
  • “For the most part…”
  • If it sounds pretentious, it probably is. And it should go.

Jargon, empty, repetitious words, and cliches

These get in the way of meaning and stick out if you read the work out loud:

  • “Executional ideas…”
  • “Leveraging tech…”
  • “New innovations…”

If I’m thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding me,” then there’s a cut waiting to be made.

Weak endings

It surprises me how many web stories simply trail off, repeat, or rephrase the concluding thoughts. To me, this kind of throat clearing is a signal that the writer is unsure of whether they’ve made their case or if the story they’ve told merits more than a “So what?” from the reader. Connecting the story to a larger context, discussing the story’s implications or impacts, or suggesting further questions are some of the ways writers can leave a reader with more.

In defense of the reader

Readers have a lot of stuff to read and a lot of places to read it. While it is a little off the topic of editing for clarity and concision, There are three questions—easy to remember—that have served me well through several decades of editing. I leave them here:

  • What’s in this for the reader? (Or, “What’s the point?”)
  • Does this get in the reader’s way? (Does it support the point? If not: focus.)
  • Is this print worthy? (Would it be worth paying to put ink on paper?)
sue baldwin-way holding bookSue Baldwin-Way is winding down her 40+ year career in communications and marketing, spread among book publishing, higher education, and public broadcasting.



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