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:
|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:
|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.