Omit needless words!

Man talking with alphabet letters coming out of mouth

I don’t know about you but I don’t like clutter. Stacks of dishes in the sink, piles of mail on the table, toys strewn across the living room floor. It’s a losing battle considering I have two children under age 4 and a husband who fills the top of our dresser with loose change, business cards and crumpled receipts. But I keep trying.

“What’s all this?” I’ll ask my husband, pointing to the pile.

“Important documents,” he says, smiling.

Right.

It’s the same thing with writing. So many of the adjectives, adverbs and phrases we use are nothing more than junk mail we leave on the counter. They clog sentences, bog down paragraphs and make long documents even longer. Even worse, they do no work besides stand between you and the clear message you are trying to convey to your readers. Our Firm’s client communications are littered with them. Here are some examples:

Unnecessary words

currently                      likely
effectively                    literally
generally                      mostly
in connection with    regularly
in order to                   relatively
in relation to               routinely
in this regard              truly
In respect to                typically
largely                          very

In The Elements of Style, one of the most popular English usage guide for professional writers, author E.B. White recounts how his college English professor would lean forward over his desk, grasp his coat lapels and implore his students to “omit needless words!” In what he calls, “63 words that could change the world,” White quotes his professor, William Strunk Jr, on why people should strive to eradicate literary clutter:

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 subject only in outline, but that every word tell.

People often worry that if they minimize their use of adverbs and adjectives, their writing won’t sound professional or academic. They fear that everything they write will read like a children’s book: see spot run.

In reality, it’s the opposite. Clearing clutter from your sentences doesn’t mean a life of choppy, pedestrian sentences. You can still be as eloquent as Shakespeare, who is also an advocate of simplicity. “An honest tale speeds best being plainly told,” he wrote in his play King Richard III.

Here are examples of how you can make your writing more concise:

Before: Generally, you should anticipate that the unions and works councils will typically expect to be involved in relation to the individual steps of the process.
After: Generally, You should anticipate that the unions and works councils will typically expect to be involved in relation to in the individual steps of the process.

In the first sentence, notice that “generally” and “typically” are just taking up space. Delete them and you lose no meaning. “In relation to” is a wordy way of saying “in.” Whenever there is a shorter, more succinct way of saying something, use it. Your readers will thank you.

Before: Jane Smith routinely advises clients in connection with intellectual property issues in mergers and acquisitions.
After: Jane Smith routinely advises clients in connection with on intellectual property issues in mergers and acquisitions.

Here you don’t need the word “routinely” because the present tense verb “advises” already tells you this is what Jane routinely does. “In connection with” is a wordy way of saying “on.” Like, “in relation to,” it’s an unnecessary phrase I see repeatedly in our Firm’s writing, particularly in our lawyer CVs. We’d be better off without them.

Before: The process to comply with the new regulation appears to be relatively simple.
After: The process to comply Complying with the new regulation appears to be relatively simple.

Can you see how condensing and deleting just a few words makes the sentence clearer? Now it’s your turn. Here’s your assignment: refrain from using adjectives and adverbs in everything you write for one week. Before sending anything to anyone, print out your work, examine every sentence and ask yourself, “Do I really need this word? Is there a shorter way to say this?”

Write like Professor Strunk is standing over your shoulder, grasping his lapels and urging you to change the world, one deleted adverb at a time. At the end of the week, send me an email or leave a comment on this blog telling me how it went. I have a sneaky suspicion suspect that you’ll feel much lighter.

2 thoughts on “Omit needless words!

  1. Michael April 5, 2016 / 3:29 pm

    Hi Laurie,

    Thanks for the tips! I realize that I share some of the habits you mentioned in it. Crumpled receipts sounded somewhat familiar (why don’t they use better paper?), and I will make an effort and try to delete adverbs. But the one habit that I would not want to quit is using “generally”. As a non-native speaker of English, I use this word as a synonym for “as a rule” when I want to talk about an exception to that rule right afterwards. For example, I would write: “Generally, you are not allowed to use this parking lot. However, you are allowed to use it if you have a special parking permit.” I feel like “generally” (or “as a rule”) is necessary in the first sentence when I want to tell my reader that this sentence does not contain the whole truth, so please keep reading. Maybe this is just a feeling.

    Kind regards,
    Michael

  2. Rachel April 14, 2016 / 4:09 am

    Thanks Laurie for the great reminder! I would add that you never, ever get this right the first time. I don’t know about you, but I find I have to print my work off, get out my carefully sharpened pencil and be ruthless before I get the clarity I need. It takes time, but it’s always worth it.

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