Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A to Z Challenge: U is for Unnecessary Words



Welcome to the 2013 A to Z Challenge!

This year, I’m focusing on two themes:  Emotions and grammar,
depending on which letter we’re on each day.

I’ll be sharing mostly what I’ve learned about writing emotion into a novel, but I’ll also be throwing in a few key grammar lessons, pet peeves I’ve picked up while working as an editor.

Today’s a grammar day!  (Sort of.)

__________

U is for Unnecessary words:  words that are not essential or requisite; indispensable

Thomas Jefferson once said, “Don’t use two words when one will do.”  After missing commas and the overuse of present participle phrases, the use of unnecessary words is probably the third most common mistake I see as an editor. 

I think this is because, as writers, we love words—our words—and if we happen to compose a beautiful string of them, we loathe deleting a single one.  We believe it’s perfect just the way it is, so eloquent, so clever, so impressive.  But if you can remove one of those words and have the meaning remain intact, then it’s unnecessary. 


George Orwell once said, “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”  Less is always better, because words that don’t contribute meaning to a sentence actually weaken it instead. 

Orwell also said, “Never use a long word where a short one will do.”  When William Faulkner criticized Ernest Hemingway for his narrow use of words, Hemingway replied, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.


I could go on and on, but that would be counterintuitive, wouldn’t it?  So I’ll leave you with this:  Read each and every sentence you’ve written again and again.  If there is a simpler way to write it with shorter and fewer words, do it. 

Do you find you can often delete a certain amount of words in your own writing without altering the meaning?  Do you do it or leave them because you find them pretty or witty?



23 comments:

Lynda R Young said...

Ah, this topic is close to my heart. I'm a firm believer of this in my work (not so much in my comments, lol). It's not always easy, of course. Sometimes I'll over indulge.

mooderino said...

It's amazing when you try a line without a word and it not only still makes sense, but it's a lot more powerful.

mood
Moody Writing

Rhonda said...

I do agree that we love words. I am finding with this AtoZ challenge that I am trying to keep my posts well under 500 words, therefore cutting out extra words from each post. Not worried so much in comments :)

Rhonda @Laugh-Quotes.com

Sheena-kay Graham said...

Yes I've found in rereading that they're words I don't actually need. That's why it's essential to do revisions.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Fewer words? Not a problem! My writing could be tighter, but I don't tend to have a lot to cut.

Natalie Aguirre said...

So agree, Nancy. When I did a revision focusing on cutting unnecessary words, I cut my word count a lot.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

My first two fiction books are long, even after cutting 30,000 words out of one of them, but the three that followed were much tighter.

JeffO said...

Orwell, of course, is the guy who had a 25-page 'book within a book' that I couldn't even read the last time I read 1984. I understand why it was there, but man, was that a slog.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Yeah. I've learned a lot about that but my editors are teaching me even more. *sigh* lol

runningsurvivor said...

Nancy, great advice! I will definitely remember your words when going over my book again! Blessings from your new follower via the challenge...follow back if you like

Shannon at I Survived and Now I Run

Mark Means said...

And the moral of this story is...

"Don't mess with Papa Hemingway!" :)

I'm bad for overusing words and it's something I really need to work on.

Julie Luek said...

The current trend (thank you Hemingway) is this starkness of speech. But then you read someone like Pat Conroy's view on writing (The Great Santini and many more) and he was a proponent of lush writing rich with(gasp)adjectives. I think these "rules" of right and wrong are trendy and good to be aware of for commercial success but meant to be broken sometimes too.

The Desert Rocks said...

I'm so glad I'm not an editor. It sounds super frustrating.

C. Lee McKenzie said...

That's one thing I love about word limits. When you know you only X number of words to express your ideas, you have to choose exactly the right way to do it.

Michael Offutt, "Johnny on the Spot" said...

Oh my. I think I use unnecessary words. I'm glad I have you to set me straight.

Elizabeth Seckman said...

Steinbeck was the master of balance. Every sentence, every phrase in his work is essential and does something. A true genius.

Nancy Thompson said...

Did you just roll your eyes at me, Mike? ;-P

L.G. Smith said...

I'm fortunate to have a pair of critique partners who aren't worried about protecting my emotions. They slash everything. My pages come back looking like a murder scene. I'd say they're right about cutting my brilliant words maybe 75% of the time. The rest I fight for. :D

Mel Chesley said...

Hmm.. very helpful advice. I have been thinking that my editing this time around will be different from the last. Just because of all the editing advice I see/get.

klahanie said...

Hey Nancy,

Finally got to your site to leave one of my eagerly anticipated comments.

I think you'll realise that when the mood hits me, I can be a grammar anarchist. Today is not one of those days. I believe and Penny the Jack Russell dog and modest internet superstar, believes that brevity and not having too many unnecessary words is just um not necessary and I promised I wouldn't do a run-on sentence with the over-usage of the conjunction word "and"!

Happy alphabeting, Nancy.

Gary at the alternative anarchic alphabet!

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

This is another reason I admire writers so. They have to create just the right amount of words and still appeal to our emotional levels and win us over. Not an easy thing to do!

Jerry E Beuterbaugh said...

Sigh.

Heather M. Gardner said...

My problem is I need more not less. Sometimes I'm too succinct.

:)

Heather