Achieving Good Writing: Omit Needless Words

Strunk & White of the legendary guide to good writing, The Elements of Style, were on to something when they advised writers, simply, to “omit needless words.” This is valuable advice as you work towards becoming a writer.

good writing
Good writing is simple writing.

This is something I’ve been struggling with myself lately. As you may have guessed, I have just finished writing a book of writing advice. We don’t have a final title yet, but it will be out in November from Writer’s Digest Books. Huzzah! Fiction and nonfiction are two completely different beasts, but economy and good writing are still virtues in both.

Simple Writing: Not so Simple

As I was working, I found myself obsessing with simple writing. Sometimes I get an idea in my head and I really want to make it come across clearly but it’s such a tangle in my mind that it can just become much more difficult to see all the garbage that surrounds what I’m really even trying to say and separate out the good stuff.

Sentences like the above ran positively amok in the first few drafts of my manuscript. Then I started to think simply. Read that run-on again. It’s a nightmare. As I got more and more comfortable with writing the book, I took a torch to sentences like it and focused on producing good writing (more on revising here).

Good Writing is Simple Writing

I’d rewrite it as, perhaps:

Sometimes I get so tangled up with expressing a core idea I can’t see the wheat for the chaff.

If I wanted to say it without the cliché, I might write:

Sometimes I overthink a core idea and let my explanation overshadow what I mean to say.

This is the same idea, the same information, but a lot more streamlined. All those extra words do not equal extra knowledge or good writing. In crafting my own manuscript, I developed eagle eyes for excessive language. Now all the notes I give on manuscripts are, “Simplify!” and “You’re saying something simple in a convoluted or roundabout way.” Keep this in mind as you’re working on becoming a writer.

Unpacking the Nightmare Sentence

Sometimes I get an idea in my head (I should hope so…where else do you get ideas?! This is implied.) and I really want to make it come across clearly (“Make it come across clearly” is flabby, “express” is a stronger verb that’s less colloquial and cuts to the point.) but it’s such a tangle in my mind (I like the “tangle” image but I’ve already mentioned “in my head,” so “in my mind” is not only redundant syntactically (“in my noun”), but in terms of content.) that it can just become much more difficult (“much more adjective” is a writing tic of mine that I notice everywhere, so is “just,” “even,” and “really,” which all feature in this sentence. I swear, if I was left to my own devices, I would just make sentences out of those filler words and nothing else.) to see all the garbage that surrounds what I’m even trying to say and separate out the good stuff (Here I’m restating my point for the billionth time. If I am talking about separating garbage from something, it’s implied that I’m probably trying to get it away from “good stuff,” so I don’t know if that bears repeating.).

Look for Your Own “Sentence Pretzels”

God. I exhaust myself. This is obviously a glaringly bad example, choked with needless words–circuitous, and redundant. But I’ve seen many similar “sentence pretzels” in critique, so I know I’m not the only writer who struggles with simplicity and good writing, whether in fiction or non.

I’m very grateful for the chance to write a book (and the pressure of a deadline). It has taught me a lot about good writing…the hard way. While I wish I could save you the trouble and divulge all of my recent insights, I know that a lot of these lessons are things you need to learn for yourself when you’re becoming a writer.

Want to produce good writing? Invest in my fiction editing services and I’ll help you trim the purple prose from your manuscript so your story shines through.

22 Replies to “Achieving Good Writing: Omit Needless Words”

  1. It’s easy to get caught up in your own words, much harder to step back and see the convoluted mess you’ve made.

    Congrats on your book! Awesome. I look forward to reading it.

  2. This is so true. I did the same with an opening sentence. His eyes glared with disapproval. Yeah, where else is he gonna glare from. Is he metallic and all of his face could glare? Yeah, he could but that’s not it.

    He glared with disapproval.

    A good reminder of our overstated thoughts.

    Can’t wait to add your book to my many books on writing.


  3. The way I do it is print out what I’ve written and then cross out the unneeded words. It’s time consuming, but better than doing it by computer. If I leave it on the screen then I scroll too fast and miss things.

  4. My dad (University Prof.) used to call this the “lard factor.”

    He’d read through my papers and essays slicing and dicing. “You don’t need this, its lard.”

  5. Oh yeah … such a great reminder. The mind wanders endlessly and we think our writing has to reflect that. It doesn’t.
    Thank you!

  6. Mary! I’m so excited for you and will definitely be buying this one–your blog has been a fountain of knowledge for me and many others I know of. Your book is going to be epic! Huge Congratulations–can’t wait!

  7. Amen! I think it’s what makes journalists such natural writers for children–including E.B. White himself. (And Mark Twain, Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry to name a few more.)

  8. I’m looking forward to your book!

    That advice from Strunk & White really resonates with me, particularly because I’m a verbose writer trying to trim all the verbosity from her prose. 🙂

  9. Mary Ann Duke says:

    Congrats. I hope it’s a best seller. I know all your Kidlit followers will want it.

  10. Congrats Mary on the book. My mother is an English major and used to slice my papers apart. She called it getting rid of the “fat”.

  11. Congratulations on your book – that’s so exciting!

    Write simply! Have added it to the mental checklist. Love the phrase “sentence pretzel” 😀


  12. There are a few people I work with I wish would learn this lesson. They consider themselves “communicators” but use 200 words to communicate a 30 word idea. Each subsequent edit they make adds words and smothers voice. Ultimately, they end up perpetrating meaningless corporate-speak that communicates nothing… because no one reads it.

  13. I like to think about haiku poems and how much meaning can be explained with such brevity. Maybe it’s the trouble with English as a whole that it seems the language requires us to use more words than necessary, simply by convention.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com