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Editing 101: Sometimes Brief Is Too Brief

So often, people send me things saying "I'd like this to be shorter, if possible."

For the most part, I have no problems with that. Many of the authors I work with spend a lot of time putting a lot more words onto the page than they really need. It's often easy to cut out a certain amount of text.

Barring any issues with the author's style preferences, shaving

"Then, he moved to the door and leaned against it, with an air of disgust."

down to

"Disgusted, he moved to lean against the doorframe."

is often pretty easy, after all.

And, taking it a bit further, I have to admit that I absolutely love condensing entire books down to the text on the back cover. (I used to work at a job where we had to boil entire operas down to three or four words. That was challenging, but fun.)

What I'm trying to say is that I completely understand the desire (and need, at times) to strip text down to its components. However, if you go too far it can have some pretty ridiculous - and indecipherable - consequences.

Take, for instance, this set of words found on the packaging for some toothpaste:

Maybe it's just me, but I kind of expect that the listing on a package will be telling me what the product is good for. My expectation is that it will either give me a list of the things the product will do or the things that the product will get rid of. Does that sound right to you?

So, looking at the list, above, and seeing that "cavities" are the first item, I'd assume that this is a list of the things that this toothpaste is going to get rid of:

  • cavities

  • plaque

  • gingivitis


  • enamel

  • tartar

  • breath

  • whitens

Wait... wait... wait...

The first three make sense, but why do we want a toothpaste that gets rid of enamel?

So maybe that line in the middle means that we've switched gears and the rest of the list is good stuff? But what about "tartar"? We obviously don't want more of that. "Breath" has me confused here, too. Is the toothpaste going to get rid of my breath? Is it going to make it easier to breathe? What does that mean?

But even breath (because it's a noun) makes more sense in this list than the verb "whitens." After all, you can't add a "whitens" to something. You certainly can't remove your "whitens" from your teeth.

The more frustrated I became as I looked at this packaging, the more I thought "I must be missing something," so - in the interest of full disclosure - here is a photo of the entire panel:

Okay. So the bottom line does clarify what we're doing with the plaque and tartar. But if we apply the "prevent" idea to the first set ("Prevents cavities, plaque, and gingivitis"), then what do we do with the second set? Do we really want to say that this "Fights enamel, tartar, breath, and whitens"? (And, again, how would one "fight whitens" anyway?)

Luckily, because this was a mini tube from the dentist - and because I tend to keep those for when I'm traveling - I dug around in my stash and found an older box of the same brand.

Thankfully, the older box had been printed before someone at Colgate had decided to eliminate a whole bunch of the helpful words. It yielded much more information:

Remarkably, in the exact same amount of space (and even after giving more space to the logos), we're presented with actual phrases and clauses that make sense.

Okay, if you're paying close attention, you'll see that the older version does not mention enamel at all. But - is it really worse to not mention it? Or is it worse to insinuate that the toothpaste removes it along with the tartar and plaque?

I don't know about you, but I'm thinking that this was one situation where a few too many words were removed for the "author's" own good.

(I won't lie. There's a part of me that is really looking forward to my next trip to the dentist, just so I can see what the latest version of the packaging looks like.)

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