• Get Your Story Straight

Extra Words

Extract Them and Make Your Writing Crystal-Clear

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash.

Wordiness is one of the cardinal sins of writing. Extra words are like weeds in a garden, keeping the flowers from blooming. And like the pretty yellow leaves of the dandelion, these word weeds may sound nice but only distract you from your goal of clean, strong, direct writing.

Many writers just get into a habit of using extraneous words; they get so used to writing certain phrases the way they’ve always read and heard them, that it seems unnatural to change them. But I usually find that if I force myself to do without those extra words, the ones left behind really do manage on their own. [Hmm, did I really need that “really”? Let’s try “the ones left behind do manage on their own.” See what I mean?]

Try on these sentences with and without the crossed-out words, and see if they don’t fit better without:

  • The restaurant serves up a classic menu. – The restaurant serves a classic menu.
  • She asked whether or not I was going. – She asked whether I was going.
  • Personally, I think you’re wrong. – I think you’re wrong.
  • I would like to thank you for your help. – Thank you for your help.
  • It’s my very favorite subject. –  It’s my favorite subject.
  • If in the event we find we can afford it, we will buy it. – If we find we can afford it, we will buy it.

None of the pared-down sentences suffers for having the extra words removed sentences. They’re stronger. (I resisted the urge to say they were “in fact” stronger.)

Your sentences can be a little longer than they must be for strictly factual communication. You may need to write a little longer for proper flow and pleasing rhythm. Just be sure you’re not adding words for the sake of adding words.

Do word counts matter?

It’s not about the word count. It’s about making the words count.

Wordiness is not just a matter of having too many words. A sentence becomes wordy when it uses too many unnecessary words, not merely too many words. In their classic writing guide, The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White cite the opening line of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as an example of extra words that work:

Mr. Lincoln, knowingly or unknowingly, was flirting with disaster when he wrote “Four-score and seven years ago.” The President could have gotten into his sentence with plain “Eight-seven” – a saving of two words and less of a strain on the listeners’ powers of multiplication. But Lincoln’s ear must have told him to go ahead with four score and seven. By doing so, he achieved cadence while skirting the edge of fanciness.

Lincoln’s intent, in my opinion, was not to point out when the Declaration of Independence was written and proclaimed the birth of a new nation. It was to note the passage of time between that event and the civil war that was being waged to define what the still-new country stood for. By using a phrase two words longer than the number of years that had passed, Lincoln added poetry to his opening line.