Rule 17: Omit Needless Words

One of the grandparents of writing guides is The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (of Charlotte’s Web fame, among other classics). Strunk was White’s professor and came up with the original list, and White edited it and improved upon it. The one I use the most when editing nonfiction and business writing is Rule 17, “Omit needless words.”

Everyone’s definition of needless is different, and sometimes extra words add clarity (which is more important than brevity for brevity’s sake). But there can be a lot of filler in first drafts, and a checklist of Things to Remove can be helpful in cleaning out the chaff in your first go-round.

 

Throat-clearers

Phrases which attempt to get the reader’s attention, or create a transition where none is needed.

  • As a result
  • As such
  • To do so/this
  • To accomplish this
  • the fact that

 

Clichés

Most of the time these worn phrases are just taking up space. If you need some kind of introduction or transition, push yourself to write something fresh or specific to your topic.

  • In today’s XXX world
  • In a world
  • In this day and age
  • Now more than ever
  • More than ever before
  • At the end of the day
  • ever-XXXing (especially “ever-changing” and “ever-evolving”)

 

Fluff

Streamline these phrases.

  • decided to VERB
    • VERBed
  • inclusive of
    • including
  • in order to
    • to
  • the following
    • Often used with lists: “The following is a list of solutions.” Reduce it to “Solutions:” and then start your list.
  • both X and Y alike
    • (both) X and Y
  • as well as
    • and
  • whether or not
    • If the choice is “whether or not to X,” you can remove “or not,” because it’s a binary choice: do or do not. So it becomes “whether to X.”
  • in the XXX space
    • Besides being horrible jargon, it’s unnecessary. Make XXX the adjective. Instead of “the role of data in the marketing space,” say “the role of marketing data.”

 

Repetition for Emphasis

Fine in fiction, which is less formal. In typical business writing, they can be cut.

  • each and every
    • each
  • every single
    • every
  • more and more/less and less
    • more
    • less

 

Spelling Out the Obvious

This is a pet peeve of mine. Are your adverbs and adjectives necessary, or just repeating something which is understood?

  • This tactic will let you fully leverage your customer data.
    • As opposed to partially leveraging your data?
  • Spark true growth.
    • As opposed to false growth?
  • Successfully position your company for expansion.
    • As opposed to positioning it badly?

Remove the “duh” words.

Don’t waste your readers’ time. Keep your prose crisp and focused.