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Lesson 29: Omit Needless Words

The secret to good writing can be summed up in three words: Revise, revise, revise!

So where should you start?

Before we start the revision process, let's learn (or review) a basic principle of good writing:

"Never use 10 words when five will do."

I call this the Ocean's 11 rule, because it's one of the lines that George Clooney delivers in the movie Ocean's 11. But Clooney certainly wasn't the first to say it; it's been expressed by great writers in many different ways. In fact, it's safe to say that this is one of the "golden rules" of good writing.

Of course, there are exceptions—just as there are exceptions to every rule. But before you get carried away trying to justify your long and convoluted sentences, learn this rule and commit yourself to writing as concisely as possible. Your writing will improve. Later we can talk about exceptions.

 
concise = giving a lot of information clearly and in a few words; short and to the point.
 

 

The Ocean's 11 Rule is concisely described in a very famous book called The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. For more than 50 years, this book has been quoted and requoted by English professors who consider it to be akin to a "writer's bible." Whether such a high opinion of this book is warranted—I'll leave that up to you. But it is, without doubt, a highly respected book on the craft of writing.

In any case, in the The Elements of Style Strunk and White enumerate 22 principles of good writing, and principle 17 is called "Omit Needless Words." It's a classic lesson, and very famous, so here it is, in its entirety.

 

17. Omit needless words.

Vigorous writing is concise. 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 sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Many expressions violate this principle:

Bad Better
The question as to whether whether (the question whether)
There is no doubt but that no doubt (doubtless)
used for fuel purposes used for fuel
he is a man who he
in a hasty manner hastily
it is a subject that this subject
Her story is a strange one Her story is strange
the reason why is that because

 

The fact that is an especially debilitaiting expression. It should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs.

Bad Better
owing to the fact that since
(because)
in spite of the fact that though
(although)
call your attention to the fact that remind you
(notify you)
I was unaware of the fact that I was unaware that
(did not know)
the fact that he had not succeeded his failure
the fact that I had arrived my arrival

 

See also the words case, character, nature, in chapter IV. Who is, which was, and the like are often superfluous.

Bad Better
His cousin, who is a member of the same firm His cousin, a member of the same firm
Trafalgar, which was Nelson's last battle Trafalgar, Nelson's last battle

 

As the active voice is more concise than the passive, and a positive statement more concise than a negative one, many of the examples given under Rules 14 and 15 illustrate this rule as well.

[Rule 14 is "Use the active voice" and Rule 15 is "Put statements in positive form"].

A common way to fall into wordiness is to present a single complex idea, step by step, in a series of sentences that might to advantage be combined into one.

Bad Better
Macbeth was very ambitious. This led him to wish to become king of Scotland. The witches told him that this wish of his would come true. The king of Scotland at this time was Duncan. Engouraged by his wife, macbeth murdered Duncan. He was thus enabled to succeed Duncan as king. (51 words) Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth achieved his ambition and realized the prediction of the witches by murdering Duncan and becoming king of Scotland in his place. (26 words).

 

 

 

And there you have it—Strunk and White's famous advice on the value of brevity in writing.

As you begin to revise your own paper, keep this advice in mind, regardless of how exactly you want to phrase it.

 

Lesson Steps

 
1.

Can you think of any exceptions to the Ocean's 11 rule? In other words, when might a writer choose to add "needless" words to his or her writing?

Be prepared to discuss your answer in class.

2. Congratulations! You're done with this lesson.