A Practical Guide to Eliminating Excess Words

Excess Words

A couple of weeks ago I talked about how to make your writing slick as fuck. The gist of it is that you need to remove all unnecessary words. However, after chatting with one of my freelance writing students today, I realised that perhaps that’s not as easy as I made it sound.

Here’s what my student said in the Facebook group:

Just got my latest homework back and the feedback was mainly that some of the sentences were a bit wordy and I included too many unnecessary words. To me, that suggests my editing isn’t great so was wondering if you could share any tips as to how you edit and get rid of those unnecessary words.

I have just read Karen’s ‘slick as fuck writing’ guide so have some pointers from that but would appreciate some more also!

The man has a point: if you’re not used to cutting out your own words, how do you identify which ones need the boot? How do you murder your darlings, swiftly and objectively?

Before you begin this exercise, there are two things to remember:

  • You must not try do this as you’re writing. Good lord, no! A recipe for hating yourself if ever there were one. Just write as you normally would, then edit the excess words out afterwards.
  • Leave a bit of time between the writing and the editing. You should wait at least an hour, but the longer you can give it the better.

We clear on that? Okay, good. The method I’m about to share with you is kind of laborious, but it works. Here’s what you need to do to remove all unnecessary words from your writing:

  1. Consider each paragraph individually
    Does it add anything? Is it relevant to the message you’re trying to convey? And, most importantly, would your meaning be lost if this paragraph weren’t there? If not, remove it.
  2. Consider each sentence individually
    Does it add anything? Is it relevant to the message you’re trying to convey? And, most importantly, would your meaning be lost if this sentence weren’t there? If not, remove it.
  3. Consider each clause within a sentence individually
    Does it add anything? Is it relevant to the message you’re trying to convey? And, most importantly, would your meaning be lost if this clause weren’t there? If not, remove it.
  4. Consider each word individually
    Does it add anything? Is it relevant to the message you’re trying to convey? And, most importantly, would your meaning be lost if this word weren’t there? If not, remove it.

And that’s it. Simple. If nothing else, just remember this: if you’d still get your point across without it, remove it.

The danger with this method, of course, is that you risk losing your voice in the process. However, I’d argue that if you’re still at the point where you’re inserting too many unnecessary words, you haven’t yet found your voice. Or at least not a voice anyone is going to want to read, anyway. So you’d be much better served learning how to identify which words you should remove first, and then learning how to put your personality to the page. This is an essential skill to master if you ever want to be considered a good writer, and one that comes far earlier than ‘finding your voice’.

Photo by Josep Ma. Rosell.

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