Cut the Clutter: 17 Phrases to Omit from Your Writing Today

Faculty Insight

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).

An illustrated cover of The Elements of Style, still a useful guide for writers today.

An illustrated cover of The Elements of Style, still a useful guide for writers today.

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!”

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Comments


David A. Teaabo (not verified) replied:

Excellent article and advice. I'm totally in the same 'boldness' with Christina here that being concise and clear in writing is key to clear and enjoyable reading! Although English is my second language, I use it 90% in work and personal communications (written and spoken). From experience, being concise and clear in communication whether be verbal or written reduces the stress of (but enhances) the recipient to understand instantly!

March 1, 20167:46pm

Dhurba Gautam (not verified) replied:

Thank you very much sharing fruitful idea. It helped improve my writing skills

March 1, 20168:31pm

Irvinder Babra (not verified) replied:

Hi Ms. Christina Thompson, Thanks for your starter list of needless words, and I am so happy that I use none of them! Does it make me a better writer, yes of course. I keep it simple. Writing by hand, and keyboarding, are my new passions. Writing, I am finding is a route to wealth; Oscars last month paid a high end tribute to the writers, right in the beginning of their super show. Investigative journalism's movie, Spotlight, expanded the role of media today, made it paramount and prosperous. This is my first comment, post. I am very proud that I am submitting to you at Harvard, as a Canadian investigative journalist since 1988, editor Sikh Press, 1990 and caregiver, 1996. Regards from Brampton, Canada.

March 2, 20161:11am

Jeff Hafer (not verified) replied:

Thanks!

March 2, 20167:28am

Markela (not verified) replied:

Excellent!

July 13, 201611:17am

Dwight Ware (not verified) replied:

Brevity fine but not at expense of losing style and myriad possibilities of expressing same thought creatively. Cutting out so many articles as Canadians do is helpful.

August 13, 20166:49pm

Dr Stephen Jones (not verified) replied:

Thank you for the wonderful article. There is always room to improve on writing.

September 4, 20166:33pm


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