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Omit Needless Words That Serve No Purpose

When in high school, I had an English teacher who made us copy out by hand the guidelines from Strunk…

When in high school, I had an English teacher who made us copy out by hand the guidelines from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Chances are pretty good that you’ve heard of this book and maybe even that you labored over similar assignments during school. At the time, it seemed like a busy work assignment (and it probably was one, to some degree), but many of the guidelines have stuck with me, among them the demonstrative “Omit needless words.” I’ll quote the editors further:

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.

Of course, this is problematic. Who’s to say which details are the necessary ones? One person’s aesthetic may demand more description than another’s. Putting those cases aside, there are certainly plenty of unambiguously needless words many of us use in our writing (and in our speech) that we could omit. In many cases, I believe we add these words when trying to sound more formal or official. Some examples from Elements of Style follow:

Bad Good
used for fuel purposes used for fuel
he is a man who he
in a hasty manner hastily
this is a subject that this subject
the reason why is that because

In each of these cases the phrases on the left contain extra words that add nothing but clutter. I took a quick look back through some of my posts here to see if any obvious candidates for omission jumped out at me. I won’t flog myself too diligently here in the public eye, but here go a couple of things I might have phrased more concisely:

Bad Better?
he often adopts something of a folksy voice he often adopts a folksy voice
from in the midst of the maelstrom from within the maelstrom

How about you? Do you ever catch yourself padding your writing with filler words? Do you find that you do so more frequently when you’re trying to sound formal (or is this theory of mine nonsense?)? As an exercise, consider revisiting an old post and seeing if there are words you could omit without altering the meaning or mood of the post.

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    1. You know, I wondered that myself. The syntax of the sentence isn’t terribly straightforward, but I don’t know that there are any unnecessary words — perhaps the author could have condensed “avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline” into just one of the two phrases.

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  1. For the month of August I wrote fiction and some non-fiction that had to wrap itself up in 50 words. VERY concise. What a great writing exercise that was. Every noun and verb had to be powerful; adjectives and adverbs were cut to a minimum.

    Some were pretty darn good; others – not so much. But it was still very fun.

    Again I self promote myself by sharing the link to my site: http://wp.me/pv81p-15I

    BTW, I love the easy access to a short link. Thank you. rbs

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    1. Sure, Jessica, though I didn’t add very much to what Strunk and White gave us. By the way, there’s an illustrated edition of Elements of Style. I haven’t ever taken a peek at it, but I wonder if it’d be somehow more palatable to students. (Maybe somebody ought to make an iPhone app of it.)

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  2. I find myself adding extra words that are not necessary, but I’m working on improving my writing. Your blog always helps (now I’m worried I added extra words I don’t need).

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  3. I disagree with the examples from your own writing. The words omitted in the examples from the book serve no purpose. The words you omitted from your own examples serve the purpose of more colorful writing. I agree that they can be shortened, but I don’t agree that it makes the writing sound better ;)

    Great post though!

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  4. Being a college student most of my essays and reports have to be a certain word limit, and therefore I sometimes catch myself in finding the longest way of saying something very simple, what could be written in a few sentences end up being a paragraph long.

    Other times however I end up going through the entire report and cutting out words when I am over the allowed limit. It is funny how many different ways you can say the same thing.

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  5. ah! how refreshing to see two references to The Elements of Style this week. :o) Just proves good writing never goes out of style. going back to my h.s. days – i still try to comb through my writing and weed out the needless words. like your post.

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  6. I might be a contrarian here. I wouldn’t take conciseness to rigorously because sometimes the extra words that may seem like clutter actually provide nuances to help the reader alone. For instance, your Bad/Good table works for most situations. For your Good/Better table, I’d probably regard the examples as borderline cases, mainly because the padding doesn’t seem too much enough to distract the reader. But that’s just me, perhaps. Just my twopence worth.

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  7. Nicely said. What’s the saying? “Brevity is the soul of discretion”? Something like that.

    I have an inner monitoring system. When I am writing something and it’s time to stop, I run out of things to write. I can get it going again, but usually the next part is not as good as the first part.

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  8. I know that I do that when I really don’t have a handle on what I want to say. The extra words indicate floundering on my part and with them perhaps I can wade through all the extraneous junk in my head and focus on the basic point. Am I doing it now? Perhaps.

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  9. I set myself a limit of words when writing posts for my blog. Then I go through skimming out unnecessary words. I try to avoid short jerky sentences but do not use words as padding becauseI dislike flowery writing. I will re-read my earlier posts now in light of your post to see how successful I have been.

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  10. We need to keep in mind the historical context of the book. It was written in 1918. William Strunk was attempting to get his 99% male college students to write in a manner he personally considered manly. “Vigorous writing” meant manly writing in Edwardian times.

    Strunk grew up in high Victorian times and in the post-WWI “modern” Edwardian age the old style of writing and speaking was considered florid, effeminate, and pretty useless. Authors such as Bulwer-Lyton, who once had been incredibly famous, were now to be ridiculed not emulated.

    This doesn’t mean abandon all sense of beauty or personal style. There’s a reason people authors such as Dickens, Austen, Dumas, and Tolstoy remain popular. It’s the beauty of the writing, coupled with truth. Strunk threw the baby out with the bathwater.

    “From in the midst of the maelstrom” should be trimmed — to “From the midst of the maelstrom” which is beautiful, powerful, melodious. I want to read more. Hacked down to “From within the storm,” is pretty boring, albeit “manly” sounding. I want to close the book and go to bed.

    Also, people need to keep in mind “Elements of Style” (1918) didn’t catch on until 1959, when Strunk’s former student, EB White (the author of “Charlotte’s Web”), revised and enlarged it. Ironic, isn’t it.

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    1. Wow, thanks for that bit of context. I favor a maximal type of prose myself (though spare prose can be nice too) and am a great fan of the likes of Dickens and Hardy, who I guess may be the types Strunk was rebelling against. I have a special place in my heart for big sprawling books with long, full sentences. Still, when it comes to the types of errors S&W cite as given above, I think the advice remains sound; there’s no point in saying “this is a subject that does X” when you could say “this subject does X.” Because many of their suggestions are suggestions that can be put to good use by those whose purpose is to write prose that is nice and tidy, chances are good that Strunk and White are editors whose work will appear here again. ;)

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  11. I have to go along with Sophia’s thoughts here. One’s writing should be natural. If we were to write in the style recommended in 1918 I think we’d be boxing ourselves in.
    If it’s concise you want, then try twitter.

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  12. Strunk’s version of the Gettysburg Address:
    We think we are here to dedicate this Gettysburg battlefield to those who fought for our eighty-seven year-old “free” nation, but we can’t, because their deeds were more important than our words. Instead, let’s resolve to retain and promote our freedom.

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  13. True! Although lengthy words usually sound poetic but sometimes too much is just bad composition. I usually do this sort of things (guilty!) and when I read what I’ve done it doesn’t sound smart at all. Just makes me feel like I’m a trying hard writer. LOL. Thank you for this!

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  14. I’ve read the same advice “On writing” by Stephen King (translated in Greek). I was surprised and troubled: what is more than necessary? Anyway, I remember and try to follow it each time I write although I like complicated phrases.

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  15. I’m not sure I necessarily agree that this is always true. In fiction, when you aim for efficiency over everything else you writing might come across as lacking soul or passion.

    Which sort of fiction would you rather read:

    It is a warm cloudless Sunday afternoon in July. Michael is sat on a bench next to a duck pond eating an ice cream. He bought the ice-cream from the kiosk in the park.

    Or

    Michael looked up and smiled as he felt the warmth of the July sun on his face. This was his favourite way to spend a Sunday afternoon, sat on his favourite bench in the park, watching the duckpond sparkle in the sunlight and eating home-made ice cream from the kiosk

    The first gives you the same information but which would you rather read? Sometimes people forget that writing is an art. Personally I think that a balance must be struck between efficiency and passion. I post book reviews on my blog and have criticised some books for being over-written.

    In non-fiction, essays etc I certainly agree that efficiency should take precedence. I hate appeals to emotion in academic texts, it gives the impression of a lack of substance.

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