Strengthen Your Writing

Strengthen Your Writing: Delete Unnecessary Words
by: Tom Aaron

The Greek word pleonasm is the use of unnecessary words. Pleonastic words are unnecessary words. Strunk and White are the first pleonists that we know. Their small text outlines the basic elements in writing.

Have you read Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style”? In the book, one of the points that Strunk and White make is to delete unnecessary words. They argue that deleting the unnecessary words and using fewer words creates stronger writing, that communicates with more impact.

The above paragraph fails to follow Strunk and White’s advice. The following sentence does: Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” commands us to delete unnecessary words, strengthening our writing. This sentence provides all the information in the wordy paragraph above. Nothing is missing.

In the ideal sentence, every word is necessary. Looking back at the final sentence in the second paragraph above, we see that it adds nothing. To improve our writing, we need to learn to delete such sentences.

We human beings are often naturally wordy. Ideal sentences do not flow from the tips of our fingers through the keyboard and on to the screen. Strong writing, writing without unnecessary words, emerges through rewriting.

Here are three examples of words that are often unnecessary:

1. It is: This empty ‘it’ does not carry any information. ‘There is’ and ‘there are’ are also often unnecessary.

2. The book was written by Mark Twain: The passive uses more words. Change the sentence to Mark Twain wrote the book. The writing is shorter and stronger.

3. Use verbs instead of nouns. Compare these two sentences:

He took up a collection for charity.

He collected money for charity.

The second sentence uses two words less and provides more information. Read both sentences aloud to feel the power of the second sentence compared to the first.

Strunk and White provide writers a path to powerful writing. They write as follows:

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.

To improve your writing, read Strunk and White again and again. Try to follow their advice. Take comfort in the fact that they make the same errors we do. Did you spot the unnecessary “in the fact” above? This adds no information. Delete. Strunk and White tell us that they have the same problem. Vigorous writing demands time. Read Strunk and White again and again, put in the time, and improve your writing.

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