Author Dan Balow

Unnecessary Words

From my earliest days writing and communicating, I’ve needed to fit whatever I wrote or spoke into space and time required by the medium in which I was using at the moment.

In electronic media, a clock runs everything. If you have 90 seconds to fill before the radio newscast, you actually have 89 seconds to make a point. Not 91 or 105 seconds…89 seconds, so the network feeds are picked up without talking over them.

In the early part of my career, everything I wrote needed to fit into a timeframe as well. A 30-second radio commercial is actually 28-29 seconds. Trust me, when you need to fit a very precise timeframe, unnecessary words stick out like a sore thumb.

For example, I recall first learning about numbers in radio/TV spots. The number of days in a year is “three hundred sixty five.” Four words. You might write “365,” but it counts as four words.

My wife taught public speaking on the collegiate level for many years. I remember her saying one of the universal truths of public speaking was “no one knows how to limit their time.”  She would tell me stories of a student giving a required five- minute speech and the introduction taking three minutes. They needed an extra 10 minutes to finish the five-minute speech.

Every person alive has been in a situation where someone else asked for five minutes of their time and took twenty-five.

Rule of thumb – normal paced speech is about 150 words per minute. If you need to speak for five minutes, you get 750 words…not 1,250.

When writers are disciplined by writing for time or word-count, they often find a lot of unnecessary words can be edited out.

Aspiring authors of books often consider books somewhat like untimed media where length restrictions are suspended. This is not true. Using too many unnecessary words slows down the pace of a book and could cause a reader to stop reading, which is not something you want to occur.

Books need to be the most effective use of words, simply because they are longer, you need to hold attention by writing well. You want the reader to turn the page, again and again.

And part of writing well almost always involves removing unnecessary words.

You want to learn how to be an excellent writer? Try writing hundreds of devotionals or scripts for a short-form 90-second radio program. Both require something important and interesting in 200-250 words.

Every word is important.

A while ago, while reading the first page of a manuscript from an aspiring author, I began counting the number of times the word “had” appeared. I stopped counting at twenty in the first couple paragraphs.

I asked the writer how long their complete manuscript draft was. You guessed it…280,000 words. (That’s two hundred eighty thousand for those of you who are radio announcer/word-counters.) Evidently the work originally was 500,000 words and “substantially edited” to eliminate over 200,000.

Yikes. (A technical publishing term for this type of manuscript used throughout the publishing industry.)

The author could have cut the length another 10% by limiting the use of one unnecessary word, appearing 30 times a page!

I could list a number of overused, unnecessary words but most writers with some training know them already.

Writing a book is difficult, especially when an author realizes it is not a puffed up blog post or a no-limits open-mike session in the public forum.

If you write a 70,000-word book, it is relatively easy to slip into “school term paper mode” wrapping 30,000 well-chosen words in 40,000 unnecessary words. But the nature of books, holding someone’s attention for many hours, requires the author’s full attention for every single word they write.

And that is what makes writing books difficult. (Hey, sometimes you can use “that.”)



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