The secret to making your writing sing is word economy. That’s the article. The end. And an easy way to improve your business communications is by removing unnecessary words in writing.
However, economical does not mean shorter. William Strunk, in The Elements of Style, so eloquently states:
“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 his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
So simple, and yet examining your writing to ensure every word does major lifting takes a tremendous amount of work and willpower. It takes the willingness to trim, tune, and tighten until the shape of the narrative is precise.
In writing practice, you hammer in good habits, but you also reinforce bad habits too.
11 tips for removing unnecessary words in writing
To break bad writing habits and adopt good ones, use this checklist to examine your drafts and cut fat. Once you have experience identifying these common culprits to clunky writing on current full-length drafts, implement the techniques as you write new pieces.
1. Delete redundant phrases.
You never need to say two words consecutively with the same meaning, so examine your writing for accidental redundancy. For example: “Close proximity.” Proximity means close, It’s either close or not close. Here are some other common repetitive phrases:
- Basic necessities
- Unexpected surprise
- Personal opinion
- Added bonus
- Free gift
- End result
- New innovation
- Regular routine
- Each and every
- Sum total
- Past history
- Blatantly obvious
- Period of time
- Advance warning
- Sudden impulse
- Absolutely certain
Smart Blogger offers almost 300 on its list.
2. Trade adverbs for punchier verbs.
If you’re looking to remove unnecessary words in writing, adverbs are a great place to start since they often act as a crutch, propping up limping verbs. Adverbs aren’t all bad, of course, but the more you rely on them, the weaker your verbs become.
Consider these examples: The sentence “She wholeheartedly believed in hope” is made stronger by deleting the adverb and replacing the weak verb with a stronger, visceral verb: “She clung to hope.”
One strong verb for two weak ones (adverb + weak verb) is a great exchange, and it gives you and the reader more bang for the buck.
Adverbs can also cause overwriting, telling the reader how to feel or act. Take the sentence “She smiled fearlessly,” for example. Rather than telling the reader how the woman smiled, let the reader decide based on the scene or situation.
Show what a fearless smile looks like instead of simply stating it.
3. Evaluate your gerund use.
Gerunds — verbs ending in -ing — are weaker, especially when used en masse, than their simple present or past tense counterparts. Roy Peter Clark, author of Writing Tools 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, offers two explanations as to why.
He says gerunds add a syllable to the word, dampening its impact. Also, the addition of -ing to several verbs in a paragraph makes them all resemble each other, creating a monotony of sounds.
Gerunds often make their way into titles, and many fall flat as a pancake. Make titles carry their weight by nixing the -ings altogether.
Not all -ing verbs have cooties, especially in moderation. If you find you have several gerunds in your piece, cut them with the same spirit you do for adverbs. Use, don’t overuse. Replacing some will make the piece cleaner and more direct.
4. Eliminate filler words and unnecessary qualifiers.
Removing unnecessary words from writing is simple when you eliminate filler words.
Filler words are easy to identify in speech: “Um,” “Ah,” and “Like” are a few that are easy to pick out in an everyday conversation. But imagine a speech where the speaker’s ideas flow from one to the other, and they never fill the space with unnecessary noise.
Even the most elegant writer uses filler words and unnecessary qualifiers (at least in the first few drafts). Deleting these common fillers can refine the delivery of your writing.
- In order to
- When all is said and done
- Needless to say
- For what it’s worth
- In my humble opinion
- For all intents and purposes
- A bit
- Sort of
- Kind of
- In a sense
- Tend to
- Seemed to
- Must have
- Could have
5. Tighten common conversational phrases.
In an effort to make writing sound conversational, marketers sometimes pick up the excess words people use unintentionally when speaking. In written copy, we have to learn to say it in fewer words. Here are some examples and how to shorten them for the page:
- As to whether = whether
- Due to the fact that = because
- For the purpose of = to/for
- In spite of the fact that = despite/although
- In the event of = if
- In the process of = when/while
- Has the ability to = can
- With regard to = regarding
- With the possible exception of = except
6. Delete the preface.
The dreaded author’s preface is often seen in conversational writing, but marketers have to be aware of important details and trust readers to recognize those details as well. Avoid prefacing statements with “It’s interesting to note” — shouldn’t the reader, not you, get to decide if it’s interesting?
7. Kill your darlings.
Here’s an easy way to remove unnecessary words from writing: kill your darlings. Every author has written something they think is too beautiful or too worthy to delete but that they couldn’t get right. They force the lines into places they just don’t belong.
Marketers can also use this writing trick to tighten up blog posts, ebooks, email marketing, and more. Copy the content over to another document and save it for another time.
8. Highlight all your to-be verbs.
This exercise will show you, in neon ink, just how often and how heavily you depend on these boring verbs and where you need to plug in better, brighter ones. Once you’ve replaced your verbs, read over your piece again. You’ll see with just this one change, your piece is tighter and stronger.
Here’s a refresher on to-be verbs:
9. Order words for emphasis.
Put your strongest content at the beginning and end. Teachers and journalists sometimes refer to this as a 2-3-1 rule — put the second strongest images and words at the beginning, the boring bits in the middle, and the best details at the end.
A great example of this comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “The Queen, my lord, is dead.” The most important part of this short sentence is dead. The second most important is the Queen, and Shakespeare just hides the title in the middle. This packs a punch at the end and leaves the reader wanting to know what’s next.
Practice this same technique within paragraphs and even for full articles. Put the best stuff at the end for emphasis, but don’t let the beginning suffer for it. A long sentence full of commas and tangents, followed by a short two- or three-word sentence, is like power-loading a spring and a great way to end an important paragraph.
10. Don’t commit thesaurus crimes.
While this won’t help you remove unnecessary words from writing, consulting a thesaurus can help you improve your content overall — as long as you don’t overdo it.
The point of a thesaurus is not to find a longer, more sophisticated word; it’s to find a better word.
11. Employ the 10% rule.
William Zinsser, author of “On Writing Well,” says: “Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there… Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising number that doesn’t serve any purpose.”
Zinsser proposes you can cut 50 percent of a draft to remove unnecessary words in writing and say the same thing. But if cutting 50 percent of a draft makes you want to hyperventilate, aim for 10 percent. You can almost always cut two words out of a 20-word sentence and not miss a thing. See?
Clear and concise doesn’t mean shorter. It means efficient and economical. Be intentional about your word choices, save the best for last, and whittle away 10 percent. Force your verbs to do the heavy lifting and cut the clutter. Make every word tell.
Make every word count. Talk to a content specialist at ClearVoice about developing engaging content for your brand today.