Three-Part Series on Writing Clearly and Concisely: Part III — 6 Strategies for Pruning Needless Words

By David Chrisinger

In my first post, we talked about paragraph coherence and the “old-to-new” sequence, and in my second post, we walked through the importance of maintaining a strong “sentence core.” In this last post, we’re moving from the sentence level to the individual word level. Specifically, I’m going to share with you six strategies for pruning out needless words that will make your writing crisper and cleaner.  

In The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. wrote, “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.”

In writing about public policy, however, many writers make the mistake of inflating what they write—often in a futile attempt to sound smarter or more important. As professional communicators, we need to fight the urge to sound smart. After all, our readers can more easily focus on the main idea of our writing if needless and unnecessary words are omitted.

Here are six strategies you can use to prune your writing and make it clearer and more concise:

  • When possible, compress several words into a word or two.

Avoid restating words and phrases that do not add meaning, and using excessive words that could be removed without losing the meaning.

For example, instead of writing the reason for, for the reason that, due to the fact that, in light of the fact that, etc., we could simply say because: “Because the agency had its budget cut….”

Instead of writing it is possible that, there is a chance that, the possibility exists for, etc., we could simply use may: “Nothing may come of these findings.”

  • Delete “double words.”

The English language has a long tradition of unnecessarily doubling words. Among the common pairs are:

  • Full and complete
  • Each and every
  • First and foremost
  • Could and potentially
  • Basic and fundamental

Here’s the secret: Pick one. Delete the other.

  • Prune redundant modifiers.

Delete words that are implied by other words. For example, finish implies complete, so completely finished is redundant. Same is true for important and essentials, true and facts, personal and beliefs, future and plans, and end and result.

  • Delete empty nouns and meaningless modifiers.

Some modifiers are what we might call “verbal tics,” words that are used almost unconsciously. These can often be omitted. Verbal tics that can easily be deleted include: really, basically, definitely, actually, virtually, particular, different, and specific.

  • Avoid adverbs.

In his book on writing, Stephen King cautions writers that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” I take a more nuanced approach. Some adverbs are fine; others can be omitted without losing meaning. For example, intensifiers—completely, totally, absolutely—are overused and don’t add much to a sentence. Degree adverbs—used to determine the degree of an action—like somewhat or moderately make the writer seem apprehensive. Ditch those. But like I said, not all adverbs are useless. Ultimately, you’ll have to figure out if you overuse adverbs, and if you do—and you’re aware of—you can revise them out of your final product.

  • Minimize the use of prepositional phrases.

A well-structured sentence quickly directs the reader toward a main idea. A sentence with too many prepositional phrases leaves the reader feeling lost in a sea of relations, with no clear main idea. If a sentence has more than three prepositional phrases—in, with, on, of, etc.—consider whether the reader might have difficulty focusing on your main point.

To reduce the number of prepositional phrases in your writing, express the important action of the sentence in the verb, use the active voice, and simplify your wording of things.

That’s it. Good luck pruning!

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David Chrisinger is a Foresight and Strategic Planning Analyst at the U.S. Government Accountability Office. For six years, he also taught public policy writing at Johns Hopkins University, and in 2017, he wrote PUBLIC POLICY WRITING THAT MATTERS, a book for everyone passionate about using writing to effect real and lasting change.