Country Reports


Cut the Fluff (1)

In this lesson, we return to the "golden rule" of good (academic) writing:

In fact, let's start by re-reading what Strunk and White have to say about this principle.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Unnecessary sentences are called "fluff." Fluff is the stuff that you write when you don't have much to say but you are trying to stretch it out in order to increase the length of your essay.

Personally, I blame teachers for much of the fluff in the world. Their intentions are good, I know. They are trying to get students to write more. Unfortunately, the end result is that many students get quite good at writing lengthy essays that have very little substance.

But longer is not necessarily better, and often, it is worse. In writing, quality is far more important than quantity.

That is why, in my classes, there is no length requirement for your country reports, other than:

That's a total of 15 sentences! Anything more is "extra" and will not earn you a better grade, no matter how beautiful those extra sentences may be. And yet many students persist in trying to impress me with how much more they can write. Sometimes the "extra" sentences are good and fascinating and a pleasure to read. But more often, they are nothing but fluff.

Fluff is especially common near the end of a paragraph, in the part we call a "wrap." Consider the following example (from a student paper):

One good thing about France is that the food is really cheap. In fact, according to the website French Cuisine, in most restaurants you can buy a full meal for less than $10 U.S. dollars (Jones). That's a great price, isn't it? Think of all the money you'll save on food. You'll be able to use that money to go shopping and you can buy souvenirs for all your friends at home. Everybody loves souvenirs from France. You'll be really popular. This is certainly another reason why France is such a great destination for a vacation.

The highlighted sentences are fluff. Although they are fairly harmless, they don't really add anything to the writer's main point. At worst, they veer off-topic, as in the above example. The writer started the paragraph talking about food, but by the end she is talking about souvenirs. And then she repeats her main thesis (the idea that France is a great vacation destination). The introduction and conclusion are where you want to state and restate your thesis. Repeating your thesis in every paragraph gets boring!

Think Like a Boxer

In boxing, you are taught to move in, punch a few times, then move out. You never stay within range of your partner's punches very long, because if you do, you are going to get hit. So a good boxing coach will tell you: As soon as you finish your punching combination—get the hell out of there! Move back out of range! You never end a punching combination with a punch. You always end with a shuffling step backward.

Shuffle in, punch, shuffle out.

It's the same with sandwich paragraphs. Once you've made your point, get out of there! Find a way to wrap up the paragraph quickly. The longer you stay in that paragraph, writing a bunch of fluff, the greater the chance that you will make a mistake. You are either going to veer off-topic, or you will bore your reader.

So think like a boxer. Shuffle in, punch, shuffle out. Your topic sentence is the way you get into a paragraph. Your evidence is the punch. Your wrap is how you get out. Don't linger longer than you have to. Get out as soon as possible (unless you really do have to stretch a two-sentence idea into a two-page paper).

Longer Paragraphs

Of course, sometimes you want to write a longer paragraph. For example, you may have more evidence that supports your topic sentence. In that case, go ahead: pile on the evidence! (Just be sure to cite each of your sources). Or perhaps you have a lot of interesting things to say about your evidence. Then go ahead, write a long "wrap."

Just make sure that you stick to the main point (the claim that you make in your topic sentence). Don't veer off topic. And if you feel tempted to veer off topic, start a new paragraph. As a general rule:

Stated differently:

Whenever a paragraph starts to feel too cluttered, break it up. And here is one last piece of advice: