Omit Needless Words

by | Writing Technique | 8 comments

After politely criticizing nearly every sentence in my first submission, my critique teammates suggested I read several books. Eager to learn, I ordered them all before I left the building.

When they arrived, one stood out: Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Because it was super-skinny I chose to read it first, thinking it would be a quick read.

I powered through the opening pages. “Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s.” OK, got it. “Do not break sentences in two.” No problem. I never do. In short order, I had polished off Section I.

I attacked the next section “Elementary Principles of Composition” without pause.  After a few pages, my pace slowed. This section made me feel uneasy. For example, I already knew to “Use the active voice.” However, the critique team had pointed out a number of places where I had lapsed into passive voice.

William Strunk, Jr.

William Strunk, Jr.

After I read the segment: “Omit needless words,” I stopped.

I recall a time, when my drinking experience consisted of beer and cheap wine in screw-top bottles, a friend stopped by with a bottle of Grand Marnier. After filling two tumblers, we attempted to drink at our normal pace, which proved impossible. After a few gulps, we changed to sipping. By the time I finished the first glass, things looked different and my head buzzed.

That was how I felt after 25 pages of Strunk and White. The words were condensed and concentrated.  Like a fine liquor, the contents needed to be sipped and savored.  After gulping down my first glassful, I felt overwhelmed.

I spent several months reading and then re-reading The Elements of Style. After each sip from the pages, I’d inspect my work, looking for places where I could apply the concepts.

I spent a whole month incorporating the advice to “omit needless words.” I discovered my manuscript was filled with extraneous words that added little value. At first, it seemed counter-intuitive that stripping words added power and clarity. I had been inserting extra words in my attempts to add clarity. I’m still in awe at the degree of improvement fewer words can deliver.

I am aware that the book has its critics. There are several items where I disagree as well. But, pound for pound, this book has provided more value than any other in assisting me master the art of writing.

If you’re an aspiring author, and you’ve never read Strunk and White’s masterpiece, do yourself a favor, click on the link below and pick up a copy. (Full disclosure: If you do so, I earn a commission. Thank you.)



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