students in a classroom

During my freshman year of high school, I learned a valuable writing lesson: how to increase clarity by cutting unnecessary words.

I received the same fundamental instruction during my first college journalism course from a required reading: the classic writer’s guide The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. I realized then how important this advice would become throughout my career.

And it’s true—trimming gratuitous copy remains an essential step for editing my own prose, and a go-to tool for coaching junior colleagues to hone their skills. That’s why I’m excited to share this lesson with you. I’ll let Strunk and White explain the gist:

“Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences.”

Notice how the authors wrote this rule perfectly in line with their own advice.

They continue: “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.”

Those last three words are my favorite. Every time I sit down to write or edit, I push myself to make every word tell.

“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
—Stephen King

 

A simple process to cut copy
Here’s how it’s done. Let me take you back to my freshman English class when my teacher, Mrs. Wiggin, gave us teenagers a tedious task:

1. Calculate the proportion of content words versus grammatical words in a given sentence: Divide the number of content words by the total number of words.

  • Content words include nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs—the words that give a sentence its meaning.
  • Grammatical words are everything else—articles, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions—that serve as connective tissue but provide little information on their own.

2. Reduce the number of grammatical words, thereby increasing the proportion of content and improving meaning.

 

Let me show you how it works
Here’s an example from a recent benefits announcement I edited.

Here’s the original phrase:
As a participant in the Acme Corp. 2018 Long-term Incentive Plan (the “Cash LTIP”), we would like to offer you this one-time opportunity…

Here’s the phrase with all grammatical words crossed out, so you can focus on the content words—there are 11 content words out of 23, or 47.8%.

  • As a participant in the Acme Corp. 2018 Long-term Incentive Plan (the “Cash LTIP”), we would like to offer you this one-time opportunity…

Here’s the revised sentence. It has 13 content words out of 22, or 59.1%.

  • We invite those who currently participate in our Cash Long-term Incentive Plan (LTIP)—including you—to take advantage of a one-time opportunity…

With some simple edits (fixing the dangling participle, strengthening verbs and reducing word count by one), I increased the content proportion by more than 11%! Note that I only reduced the total text by one word, but I reduced the grammatical text by three words. It doesn’t take much to make a meaningful difference.

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” —Mark Twain

 

Here are some more great examples from The Elements of Style, where Strunk and White improve common phrases:

  • The question as to whether > whether
  • There is no doubt but that > no doubt
  • He is a man who > he
  • The reason why is that > because
  • Call your attention to the fact that > remind you/notify you

You may notice “that” is frequently unnecessary. Overusing “that” is one of my pet peeves and I strike it wherever possible—a trick I welcome (and encourage!) you to copy.

 

Now it’s your turn
I hope you find this advice as useful as I do. Writing often feels abstract—we stumble our way toward prose that feels or sounds right. With this exercise, we can methodically study our text and make clear improvements. Who would’ve thought we could use math (gasp!) to strengthen our craft?

Now go forth and prune those unnecessary words!

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