Omit Needless Words: Improve Your Writing (and Save Money!) by Cutting the Fluff
“Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.”
Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2
In most manuscripts I work on, my primary task is to remove unneeded words. I do this more than catching typos, revising awkward sentences, or fixing unnatural dialogue. Often I remove ten percent or more of a text simply by cutting a few words here and there to make sentences more concise. In both fiction and nonfiction, learning to do this will make you a better writer by improving flow and readability. It will help your book project to run more smoothly, and since most editors charge by the word, you save money on line editing as well. This also means your editor can spend more time on the substance of your writing to provide meaningful feedback instead of focusing on trimming the clutter.
The best writers can say in a sentence what others take a page to express. Take for example the six-word story sometimes attributed to Ernest Hemingway:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Not a word is wasted and yet we glimpse a vignette with surprising emotional depth. We don’t meet the characters, but we already know a great deal about their lives.
“Vigorous Writing is Concise”
To help authors tackle this, I refer to the illustrious work of William Strunk Jr. and his student E.B. White: The Elements of Style. Some of their suggestions may feel overly formal or even old fashioned, but the book is still essential reading for any writer. If you take one thing away from it, let it be the mantra of section seventeen: Omit Needless Words.
“Vigorous writing is concise,” they write. “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.”
Elements includes a few examples of common expressions that contribute to wordiness, but let’s look at a few more.
One of my least favourite examples is, “She had a smile on her face.”
Here we see wordiness by way of redundancy. Since she is smiling, we know that action is happening on her face. One does not smile with one’s foot, just as a man who waves may be assumed to be using his hand. If information is implied in the action, look for ways to simplify the phrasing. In this case, we can produce the same effect by simply using, “She smiled.”
Needless words also creep in when discussing volumes and weights. I often find sentences that use the expression, “A certain amount of…” This doesn’t tell us anything about the amount in question and is filler that should be removed. “A certain amount of time” should be replaced either with a specific period (“A week passed”) or removed.
I often find unneeded words at the beginning of sentences, particularly in dialogue with characters who begin each line with expressions like well, okay, or other filler. For example:
“Well, I think I’ll go to the park.”
“Okay, when will you be home?”
The beginning of sentences is also the haunt of wordy phrases like It was then that or It was she who. Here we can simply use then or she without changing the meaning of the phrase. For example:
“It was then that I saw the time and realized I was late.”
Instead: “I saw the time and realized I was late.”
We’ll look at dialogue in more detail in our next post. Stay tuned!
Not every story can be told in six words, and sometimes it’s more interesting to use flourishes that would make William Strunk sigh. However, using this approach will improve your writing and let the reader focus on the ideas and characters that matter most.
Learning to edit your own writing in this way is easy, but it takes patience. Begin by taking each sentence separately and looking for ways that words can be removed without altering the meaning. Do you fall into any wordiness traps like, It was then that, or, He nodded his head? Can one word replace a group of others?
When your first sentence is as concise as possible, you can move through the rest of the paragraph. Can you merge two short sentences into one? Does every sentence contribute meaningfully?
It can be tedious at first, but it will soon be second nature and your text will become clearer, easier to read, and more engaging. Your editor will thank you (and we’re a hard bunch to impress), and it will save you money too.
Do you have other great tips to make writing more concise? Let us know in the comments below.
 Strunk, William Jr. and E.B. White. The Elements of Style (third edition). New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1979. P 23.