The process of removing ‘process’ from your writing

The process of writing is in large part a rewriting and an editing process. After the process of getting some text down, you begin the rearranging process and the snipping process. This process is—

Wait, let me try that again.

Writing is in large part rewriting and editing. After getting some text down, you begin rearranging and snipping. This is…

Much better.

In my work as a copy-editor, especially with academic and business texts, I see superfluous process a lot. It’s a popular crutch word, established among writers’ unconscious bad habits.

In some texts it occurs so often as to dominate lines without adding anything vital or even useful (unless the aim is to bulk up the text). My opening lines, intended as mild parody, are similar to many I see in unedited writing. In a recent tweet, I reported:

Deleted ‘the process of’ five times from one paragraph and you wouldn’t believe how much easier it is to read now.

While an older one says:

Deleted the word ‘process’ three times from one line. Calling every process a process is like calling every object ‘the object X’.

Or referring to every person as ‘the figure of X’. The figure of the manager wants to finish the process of reviewing the document of the report. Try: The manager wants to finish reviewing the report.

If you’re describing a design process, a development process, a production process, any kind of process, try leaving out process. It’s not always advisable – the word has its uses – but there’s a good chance its omission will make your prose more intelligible and effective.

Getting rid of process is not a panacea: stodgy, unclear writing cannot be magicked into smooth, silky prose with one trick. Process often appears among a slew of other abstractions and convolutions:

But cutting process can be a good start: it makes it easier to see what else can be improved. For example, ‘X is in the process of creating Y at present’ becomes ‘X is creating Y at present.’ At present sticks out now: ‘X is creating Y.’ There we go.

A narrow band of dark, blue-grey sky above a wind-swept sea, with 'white horses' waves and, in the foreground, clumps of brown seaweed around which the sea swirls and churns

The tidal process, aka the tide, at Flaggy Shore, County Clare

‘The process of X involves a two-stage process’ is wordy and redundant. ‘X involves two stages’ is better, but involves is still a bit, well, involved. ‘X has two stages.’

Another: ‘We engaged in a consultation process with Z’ → ‘We engaged in consultation with Z’ → ‘We consulted with Z.’ And maybe consulted could be talked, or met, or discussed things.

Do this enough and you’ll hear the difference: the authorial voice is less forbidding, more normal. Ideas have room to breathe.

You’ll see the difference too. Paragraphs look roomier. What’s important is more visible, stripped of some of the filler that readers must ignore or convert in their minds into something more coherent.

Your readers’ time is precious, their attention often fitful and fragile. Abuse it and you’ll lose it.

In most contexts there’s nothing wrong with plain language. Some writers are suspicious of a phrase like ‘P regulates Q’, turning it into ‘P undergoes the process of the regulation of Q’ because they think it’s more impressive.

It’s not. As I wrote on Twitter, readers recoil from hyperformal writing. Plain language doesn’t oversimplify your text: it streamlines the information in it, putting less work on readers.

Some words are fancyisms, replacing plain-language alternatives. But with the process of (and the issue of, etc.), they can often just go. Snip. If you regularly write things like the process of X and the Y process, try writing X and Y.

This isn’t a rule. Process is not always gratuitous. You may need to show or stress that an activity is ongoing, not a one-step deal, in which case process may serve a useful purpose. But make sure it does before you sign off on it.

As writing advice goes, ‘omit needless words’ is trite and self-evident, but it has its moments. Every action is already a process. The process of adding the process of to your writing increases the cognitive load on people in the process of reading readers. Don’t make them process it needlessly.

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18 Responses to The process of removing ‘process’ from your writing

  1. John Cowan says:

    Process of is wearily familiar, but figure of is not; perhaps it is Rightpondian?

    One programming-language standards document (that I did not get to edit) insisted on talking about “number objects”, “string objects”, etc., apparently in order to distinguish the computer representation of the number 5 from the abstract Platonic number 5. I checked the predecessor document, which sensibly talked about numbers and strings, and made sure that the successor did too.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That use of figure of is not common here either; I just used it to contrive an analogy.

      Interesting distinction in the standards document you describe. I expect its readers have appreciated your intervention.

    • Well, “5” might be a number but technically it isn’t a number object, it’s a string object. Many a process has crashed over this confusion.
      I suppose I should have written ‘”5″‘.

  2. In academia, “the writing process” often substitutes for “writing.” Ugh, though it is important for students to understand that “writing” means many different kinds of work.

    I was excited to see you question involve, a word I recently wondered about and am now watching out for. There’s a link behind my name to a post about the word.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Level and type of exposure to superfluous process will vary considerably, but academic writing is where I see it most, generally in texts I edit or proofread.

      Though I wouldn’t restrict involve to contexts ‘where there is a suggestion of entanglement or complication’, as Gowers advises, I agree with him that it has ‘developed a vagueness that makes it the delight of those who dislike the effort of searching for the right word’. It also connotes complexity and importance, adding to its appeal. MWDEU defends it unequivocally, but Burchfield, in his revision of Fowler, recommends using it ‘sparingly’.

  3. Don’t worry, it will go away. Do you remember the ‘situation’ epidemic? It got very bad indeed for a time. Then there was ‘environment ‘: I remember a lecture, which had nothing to do with ecology, where that word was used about thirty times. Both words eventually died of exhaustion. It’s a natural process in that sort of environment situation.

  4. astraya says:

    I can see a difference between, say, ‘the package design process’ and ‘the package design’ (the latter being the final result).

    • Stan Carey says:

      Of course. The ‘design’ of something may refer to a result or to what led to that result. As I write in the post, process is not always gratuitous and is sometimes useful or necessary. The thing is to know which is which and act accordingly.

  5. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Your article stimulated be to see how many processes I had in the text of a book that I’m preparing. Many of these were in quotations from other authors, and I don’t have the right to change those, of course. A few of my own processes seem justifiable, and I have left those, but I have also eliminated quite a few.

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Do you remember the ‘situation’ epidemic? It got very bad indeed for a time. Then there was ‘environment ‘: I remember a lecture, which had nothing to do with ecology, where that word was used about thirty times. Both words eventually died of exhaustion. It’s a natural process in that sort of environment situation.

    A word that is beyond saving is “molecular” meaning “in the context of molecular biology”. I went to a lecture about 40 years ago entitled something like “A molecular study of oxidative phosphorylation” in which no molecules (not even DNA) were mentioned from beginning to end.

  7. Carol Fisher Saller says:

    Side note: Does it raise anyone else’s hackles when people pronounce the plural ending as “seez”? I know it’s not incorrect, but it sounds pompous.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It doesn’t bother me, but I’ve come across the complaint before, so you’re not alone. I imagine the pronunciation arose by dubious analogy with words like crises, neuroses, and theses.

  8. noahandahu says:

    But if you remove the “the” in “the package design,” then you get “package design” which means “the designing of the package” instead of “the package’s design.” When culling “process,” you usually need to axe the “the,” also. So, “the writing process” becomes “writing,” not “the writing.”

  9. Terence says:

    I’ll definitely utililize this suggestion. I’ve been driven to the edge with that word, utilize.

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