Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Cutting Empty Phrases by Andy Scheer

“Vigorous writing is concise,” says William Strunk Jr. in his classic book The Elements of Style.  “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.”

I've put that principle in practice as I've been editing an 87,000-word nonfiction manuscript the author plans to self-publish. At 120 pages into the 270-page document, I've cut nearly 3,000 words. This puts me on pace to cut 6,900 words from the entire manuscript. That's just under eight percent.

I'm not even doing an aggressive edit. I'm mostly trimming the fat and filler—words that occupy space, but add nothing to the meaning. (Think of how, a few decades back when the price of beef soared, grocery stores added soy to their cheaper grade of hamburger. It added bulk, but did nothing to enhance the flavor.)

As I've edited, I've saved some examples of the fluff I've cut. Here are a few of the empty phrases, in the order they appeared in the manuscript.

Plan of action—What other kind is there? Just say “plan.”

Even though—Do you really need to start a sentence with double introductory prepositions? It's usually enough just to say “though.”

To be a blessing to—Does this “Christianese” phrase mean more than “to bless”?

In order to—Usually out of order. Replace with “to.”

Pose a threat to—Bulky and passive. Replace with “threaten.”

One particular time—Unless you're writing the start of a contemporary academic fairy tale, “once” is enough.

And a few longer examples, before and after:
Before: There are some still, it seems, who take the opposite extreme.
After: Some take the opposite extreme.

Before: But there are other times when
After: Other times,

We all let such phrases creep into our writing. As a novelist, you'll want to use them—if a character is an academic, attorney, or politician. Instant characterization.

Otherwise, who wants verbal textured soy protein?


Timothy Fish said...

While it is easy to say that the longer phrase means the same as the shorter, I can't help but think of how the flavor of the writing changes. Sometimes it is better to be concerned with the feel or the beat of our writing than it is with keeping it as short as possible.

And yes, I must say that "to be a blessing to" means something totally different than "to bless". "To bless" is akin to praising someone, but rather than speaking of what they've already done, you are speaking of those things you believe they are going to do. "To be a blessing to" someone means that we are God's means of giving someone something good. Sure, we could simply say that God blessed them, but that wouldn't say anything about him using us or whoever to do it.

Adam Blumer said...

Great post! And it's so true. I edit from home every day, and I see this stuff all the time. Glad you tackled "in order" (shudder). Thank you. It's nice to be affirmed.

Adam Blumer
Freelance Editor and Novelist
Novels: Fatal Illusions (Kregel), The Tenth Plague (Kirkdale: coming soon!)
(920) 412-7015

Linda Glaz said...

I have to agree as one who likes to sneak that into her own writing, but trims from others. I do think it makes a difference, as well, is you are writing literary versus genre fiction. I'm more inclined to overlook in literary. They're so wordy anyway who can tell? (sorry, suppose I'll hear about that) I know my crit group is like a chain saw, cut...cut...cut!!!

Diana said...

I guess it depends if you want to 'sell' a manuscript or just write one that doesn't make it to the bookstore shelf. Today's market wants precise wording. We live in a 'sound bite' society and if we desire to capture the younger reading audience as well as those who try to sneak a good read into their overloaded stressful life, we will learn to cut those empty phrases and write to the market.

Michele Huey said...

Here's another one that gets my dander up: "at this point in time" - What's wrong with plain old "now"?

Terry Burns said...

Editors and agents get so many good books submitted to them that a good book is not enough, to stand out from the crowd it has to be exceptional. One of the main differences between good and exceptional is story flow, how the reader is pulled in and how the pacing of the story drives them along to keep reading, not giving them a convenient spot to put the book down to do something else. I have no problem with dramatic prose for effect but too much in the way of complex and compound sentences gives the reader pause - and the opportunity to put it down. Often they don't pick it back up.

Timothy Fish said...


You might consider the difference between the statement "At this point in time, I have nothing to say," versus "Now I have nothing to say." They are very different statements. The first implies that though the person has nothing to say right now, he might later. The second implies that because of previous statements or events the person has nothing to say and is unlikely to have something to say in the future.

Terry Burns said...

I might add that we often hear that we are writing for the reader, but that isn't true. We are writing for the editor, because if we don't sell them on the story the reader isn't going to get the chance to see it.

Timothy Fish said...

Unfortunately, that is true. I'd be for firing all the editors and starting over. Who's with me?

Jeanette Levellie said...

Terrific post, Andy.

I find it easier to cut out the fat and carbs than to add to my plate. But only in writing, not eating!

Heather Day Gilbert said...

If the story is strong enough, it can definitely withstand the dumping of useless phraseology. A good editor will know just which words are redundant/serving no purpose and cut them. Excess verbiage is something that can be savored in the classics (yet is often skipped over anyway, truth be told), but it doesn't work so well in this very visual, on-demand day and age. Good post.