Editor, Harvard Review, Harvard College Library
Thompson, a writing instructor at Harvard Extension School and the author of Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, provides a simple way to start writing with greater impact: omit unnecessary words.
Good Writing Matters—No Matter the Profession
You may believe that only journalists, novelists, and other writing professionals should concern themselves with honing their writing skills. But the ability to write effectively gives anyone a competitive edge in their career. Yes, even engineers.
There will be cover letters and job applications, reports and presentations, maybe even opportunities to pitch ideas to a group of skeptical peers or investors. All of these situations will provide you with a chance to do better—or worse—depending on your ability to express yourself in writing. (In fact, Forbes has cited correlations between professional success and grammar skills).
No one is born knowing how to write. The people who learn it faster tend to be those who like to read. But everyone can learn how to improve their writing with a few tricks of the trade.
One such trick—and one of my favorites—is the catchcry of William Strunk Jr., a one-time Cornell University professor. Strunk’s little handbook, The Elements of Style, is as instructive today as it was when it was first published—nearly a 100 years ago in 1918.
“Omit needless words!”
Strunk, according to his student E.B. White, exhorted writers to “Omit needless words!” This is great advice, especially for people who believe that phrases and expressions are better if they are longer or more complex.
Many of the most needless words are little ones that fill up sentences the way “um” and “like” and “you know” fill up speech. They creep into writing when the author is afraid of sounding plain or unprofessional.
But the truth is that using overly complicated expressions—using too many words to say something simple—actually makes a writer sound less professional. Omitting needless words, or substituting a simple word for one of these phrases, makes your writing clearer, cleaner, and more concise. And it gives the reader a feeling of confidence in your ability to communicate your ideas.
But which are the needless words? Which ones to omit? With the help of the Chicago Manual of Style (another great resource for those who want to understand how language works), I have compiled a list of words and phrases that writers in every discipline would be well advised to avoid.
A Starter List of Needless Words
There are, of course, many more. These are just a few of the worst offenders:
- whether or not. Generally, use whether alone. The or not is necessary only when you mean to convey the idea of regardless of whether (we’ll finish on time whether or not it rains).
in actual fact. Redundant. Try actually instead, or simply omit.
at the time that; at the time when. Use the plain and simple when instead.
in the affirmative; in the negative. These are slightly pompous ways of saying yes and no.
at the present time; at this time; at present. These are turgid substitutes for now, today, currently, or even nowadays.
due to the fact that. Use because instead.
inasmuch as. Because or since is almost always a better choice.
in excess of. Try replacing this verbose phrase with more than or over.
in regard to. Try a single-word substitute instead: about, regarding, concerning.
literally. This word means “actually; without exaggeration.” Omit it if you’re using it loosely as an intensifier, as in they were literally glued to their seats (unless glue had in fact been applied).
presently. This word is ambiguous. Write now or soon, whichever you really mean.
previous to. Make it before.
prior to. Make it before or until.
question whether; question of whether; question as to whether. The first phrasing is the best, the second is next best, and the third is to be avoided.
in the process of. You can almost always delete this phrase without affecting the meaning.
subsequently. Try later.
subsequent to. Make it after.
Everyone falls into the trap of using these expressions from time to time. But when you write, you can discipline yourself to ask whether (or not!) you really need every one of the words in that sentence. If not, I exhort you to act boldly and “Omit needless words!”
Reference Books to Add to Your Library
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White.
The Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition. See section 5.220, Good usage versus common usage.
Writing Resources for Students
- See Academic Skills Building for a list of online writing resources.
- View the schedule of career and academic workshops.
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