Cut Your Words: 5 Articles on Concise Writing

by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

hand scissors

I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil .~Truman Capote

We writers are constantly challenged to find the right words–to be descriptive, but not verbose. To make our language leap from the page, but at the same time, control our word choice.

One of the easiest ways to clean up your writing is to omit unnecessary words.

Check out the following articles on words you can cut from your writing, and note your own worst offenders. Next time you write something, see how many you can avoid.

  1. Plague Words and Phrases, Guide to Grammar and Writing
  2. 51 Overused Adverbs, Nouns and Cliches in Writing ,Quips and Tips for Successful Writers
  3. Writing Concise Sentences, Guide to Grammar and Writing
  4. Ten Words You Should Cut…to Improve Your Writing Style, Bright Hub
  5. Are Vampire Words Sucking the Life Out of Your Writing?, Copyblogger

Once you’re used to writing more concisely, look at one of your older pieces of writing. Notice how the unnecessary words pop out at you?

The biggest one I’ve learned to cut is “that.” Now, I cringe every time I see it used without cause. My other pet peeves are:

  • “Firstly, secondly, thirdly,” for, “first, second, third”
  • “Try and,” instead of, “try to”
  • “Extremely,” used to describe something that cannot really be extreme

I’m not suggesting we strip our writing bare, but I do prefer to see each of our words count. We can do that by cutting weak words and replacing them with stronger ones.

While you don’t need to completely banish these words, use them only occasionally, and with good reason.

What words are you trying to eliminate from your writing? Which ones do you find particularly grating?

Can you suggest any other articles or resources on the art of concise writing?

{ 18 comments }

Troy Worman March 18, 2010 at 11:41 pm

XOXO

suzannah March 19, 2010 at 5:47 am

Okay, maybe that’s a little too concise!

I’m guessing you either love my article or you love me. In the latter case, I don’t think my husband would be very pleased ;)

Thanks for linking to this on your own blog, too. I appreciate it!
.-= Read suzannah´s last article ..10 Reading Exercises for Fiction Writers =-.

Ali Hale March 19, 2010 at 2:11 am

Thanks for the link to my Copyblogger post — awesome to see that it’s still being read!

I agree on cutting “that” – though occasionally a not-quite-necessary “that” can help make meaning clear.
.-= Read Ali Hale´s last article ..What Does Success Mean For You? =-.

suzannah March 19, 2010 at 5:46 am

And thank YOU, Ms. Hale for writing such a great post so I could link to it ;)

I totally agree on an occasional unnecessary ‘that’ to clarify meaning. That’s why I say use these type of words sparingly and only with good reason. Like I said to Paulo in the comment below yours, we don’t want to frustrate our readers for the sake of being spare with our words. That defeats the whole point!
.-= Read suzannah´s last article ..10 Reading Exercises for Fiction Writers =-.

Paulo Campos March 19, 2010 at 5:28 am

Hi Suzannah,

I tutor several non-native speakers (most of them speak Portuguese, a language I know well). They use “which” and “that” (demonstrative pronouns, no?) was poor; frustrated them (and me) and compelled me to explain the difference between the words.

I did some research. The result was: if the sequence of words preceding the pronoun could be a complete sentence then a comma followed by “which” should be used. If the sentence would otherwise be incomplete then “that” should be used without a comma. Or a rule of thumb: if you need a comma, use “which.”

Am I correct or have I lead my students astray?

I’m interested: are you using a principle or rule of thumb to trim “that” out of your drafts? I’ve just started revising my novel and am obsessed with tightening its prose.

Thanks for the links (they gave me a productive lunch break).

Suzannah March 20, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Paulo,
I’ve always understood the use of which/that to be the same as what you describe. One of my most respected uni English professors explained it to us in the same way. If you need to, or can, use a comma, then ‘which’ is the correct choice. I don’t think it’s that important in speech or informal writing, to be honest, but for essays or business copy, it sounds much tighter.

My rule of thumb for ‘that’ is only to use it when it’s necessary or sounds better than not having it. Like Ali said in the comment above yours, sometimes a marginally-unnecessary ‘that’ can make a sentence smoother or clarify meaning. In that case, I would use it. No sense in frustrating the reader simply for the sake of having one less word.

In a sentence like, “There’s the house that I built,” you can easily cut ‘that’ to make it, “There’s the house I built.”

Thanks Paulo!

Lydia Sharp March 19, 2010 at 12:33 pm

The two words I cut the most from a first draft are “just” and “actually”. I think they sneak in there because I use them a lot in my casual speech.
Something I see in other people’s writing that can usually be cut is the two extremes of “never” and “always”. Those words really don’t have much impact. Best to just reword it.
.-= Read Lydia Sharp´s last article ..Please Help Me Support One of My Favorite Authors! =-.

suzannah March 20, 2010 at 7:26 am

‘Just’ is a good one to cut; I probably use it too much. Good point about always/never. It’s rare that something is truly *always* or *never*, so they can get misused.
.-= Read suzannah´s last article ..Cut Your Words: 5 Articles on Concise Writing =-.

Stina March 19, 2010 at 9:56 pm

Thanks for all the links. They were really great. ;)
.-= Read Stina´s last article ..Great News for Contest Junkies =-.

suzannah March 20, 2010 at 7:23 am

Are you feeling more concise yet?? ;)
.-= Read suzannah´s last article ..Cut Your Words: 5 Articles on Concise Writing =-.

Southpaw March 20, 2010 at 4:11 pm

Those are great articles. I recently read a book were the cliché “to the nth degree” was use over five times in the book. (It’s a best seller too.) The first time was okay but the repetition drove me batty.

Suzannah March 21, 2010 at 9:44 am

Ooh, that would be annoying. When I read a book critically, I often see the same out-of-the-ordinary word or phrase used several times. Makes you wonder if the author and editor never caught it, or whether neither of them thought it was a problem.

Anonymous March 21, 2010 at 4:12 am

Those articles were very helpful. I am going to keep that list of overused words and check my documents for them on regular basis.

Suzannah March 21, 2010 at 9:44 am

Good idea! I’ve been doing that with my crutch words–that is, words I use too much, unconsciously. I’ll do a search for them when it comes time for revision, and see if I can replace some of them with better options.

Suzanne April 14, 2010 at 3:46 pm

I get your blog delivered to my email inbox and it is the best blog on writing I’ve read. Thank you for doing such a great job!

Suzannah April 14, 2010 at 8:46 pm

Wow, thank you! It’s always heartening to hear when my work is helping people achieve their goals.

Suzannah March 21, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Ooh, that would be annoying. When I read a book critically, I often see the same out-of-the-ordinary word or phrase used several times. Makes you wonder if the author and editor never caught it, or whether neither of them thought it was a problem.

Suzannah March 21, 2010 at 4:43 pm

Good idea! I’ve been doing that with my crutch words–that is, words I use too much, unconsciously. I’ll do a search for them when it comes time for revision, and see if I can replace some of them with better options.

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