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.”)
Dan, great post! As a magazine editor, I find that most submissions are 10 to 20% longer than they need to be, merely because of unnecessary words.
As a writer, however, I often find myself on the other end of the word count issue. I cover my topic and then need to add to it to hit a word count target, be it for a book or for a client. Hopefully I’m not adding unnecessary words, but it sometimes feel like I’m padding the text merely to hit a word-count goal.
I appreciate this post, Dan. It was very helpful!
Love this post. Verbosity kills interest.
Got the greatest compliment of my writing career last month. In our critique group, we limit selections to 1500 words. Using the Word Weaver critique method works well for us. But I needed a segment almost twice as long critiqued.
At the end of the reading, one of the group said “Is that all? I thought it would be longer.” What a compliment!
Writing Haiku is a good exercise for being succinct. (And a good excuse for doing something I love anyway.)
Thank you, Dan. Another great and informative post. When I trim my writing of unnecessary words I call it “pulling weeds.”
You’ve got me wondering…perhaps I better check one more time for any weeds I may have missed.
Damon J. Gray
What is succinct is powerful.
I love the “pulling weed” analogy, Joey.
Thanks, Damon! 😉
One reason I edit and re-edit and re-edit and…is to trim any extraneous words. But there are times when the verb should be past perfect with a “had” instead of simple past without. We shouldn’t dumb down our writing by slavishly following the current dogma that says we should never using it.
One of the first writing courses I took was with Dr. Randy Ingermanson. I thought that this man, with a doctorate, would be impressed by the textbooks and professional papers I’d had published. Nope. He told me that scientific writing and writing fiction were totally different–and he was right.
Thanks for this reminder that “long” isn’t necessarily “good” in writing.
Yikes, indeed. The thought of a 280,000-word manuscript is horrifying.
The best example of word economy I have seen is that attributed to General Sir Charles James Napier, who, upon capturing the village of Miani to complete the annexation of India’s Sindh province (now part if Pakistan), sent a telegram bearing but one word, “Peccavi”, the Latin for “I have sinned.”
The following words are those I’ve found too often in my writing: that, well, and.
Good lesson today. Thanks for sharing.
Scrivener has a tool in Project Statistics that finds overused words.
Finding them is easy. Creating succinct and vibrant prose is a life long endeavour.
Think of writing as analogous to painting; Claude Monet, for instance, did not work feverishly to complete his paintings en plein air, at one sitting.
In the Rouen Cathedral series, he would begin with the structural and compositional framework, begun on a number of canvases, and then commit each to a certain quality of light.
He’d work on a given painting as long as that light lasted, and then switch to another one. He did work quickly, yes, but it was speed born of experience, and did not sacrifice accuracy of touch.
And then…what many just don’t want to believe…he took the paintings to the studio and finished them, finding the right combinations of brushstroke and pigment to turn a sketch into a finished painting.
Monet’s work looks so fresh and unaffected, but that is a product of professionalism and long practice, not the calling-card of a savant.
Linda Riggs Mayfield
Good advice, Dan. Common but unnecessary words I teach my dissertation-writer and author clients to stop using are the various verb tenses and singular and plural forms possible for “there is” and “it is.” Virtually any sentence begun with either can be rewritten in a cleaner, stronger wording, and the new wording is often shorter. Sometimes just that small edit makes a big difference in clarity and focus.
It is a truth universally acknowledged… that fewer words are generally better, but there are times when accuracy and clarity benefit from progressive and perfect verb forms. But I’m sure you teach your students that.
I’m not a pro by any means, but the recent line by line edit of my first novel resulted in cutting over four thousand needless words. At first, it was difficult to cut even a sentence, but then I found paragraphs that repeated what I’d revealed in the chapter before it so they were cut. I’m more confident now with its results. Great post!
Yes, it is a great post. When I worked as editor of a magazine, my boss cringed with she sent me an article filled with ‘that’. 🙂 I have declared war on that word. (Yes, there are times to use it!) But not nearly as much as we do.
With so many wonderful words available to us, we tend to stick to the same ones. This is a good reason to increase our vocabulary.
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
Hey Dan. One time, I was teaching a speech like class like and like this one like kid like used the like word “like” 54 times in a like 5-minute like speech like. that was like 53 like times like too like many. And it was a guy!
A guy? THAT’S impressive, Sheri, but at the end, did the class like his speech? Was it only a subliminal attempt on his part to plant that feeling in their minds?
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Good point and well written, Dan. I had to chuckle though, because the subject line in my inbox read “Unnecessary Words by Dan Barlow.” Well, I found these words quite necessary! 😉
O my goodness, so true! I suffer from the problem of using too many words. We can do something about it once we become aware of our penchant for utilizing unnecessary verbiage. Learning the craft takes time and know-how. A friend got her lengthy manuscript back. On the first page were the words “No thanks!” written in large letters in bold red ink. That stung. She’d put a lot of herself into her novel. She had an underlying message she was seeking to convey through her characters as a convert to Christianity from Muslim roots. After many rejections, she gave up. A little direction could have helped stem the bleeding. We don’t know what we don’t know. She needed guidance and grace. I’m glad you address topics writers need to know.
Norma, that work sounds important to me. Maybe suggest she read Renni Browne’s Self Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print, edit using what it teaches, and try again? Her perspective might do great things for the Kingdom.
Good suggestion, Carol. My friend’s book was written almost a decade ago, a few years before I entered the writing field. Now she is a certified counselor for a Christian group ministering to wounded people. She also hosts a radio show that is broadcast into Muslim regions. I am in awe of her tenacity and commitment. Thanks for the comment.
I probably should have been clearer about length of writing. A 20,000 word work with a lot of unnecessary words is not as good as 100,000 words which make a reader turn every one of the 350 pages!
Shorter is only good (even for this generation) if it communicates something worthwhile and requires fewer words.
Some topics require 80,000 well-chosen words to communicate.
Great coaching – thanks.
I wrote 2 minute scripts for a puppet web series. The expectation was humor,a story arc and strong character. Whew! Great exercise for my novel muscles.
There is a word that grates on my nerves when I read it, unless it cannot be avoided.
It is — “that.”
Somehow it shouts at me when I’m editing others works, and of course I try to avoid it with my own writing.
Thanks for this great article; it’s always good to be reminded what a editing is about.