On Writing: Omitting needless words

The problem with clear writing is that it’s, well, clear. It’s transparent; you can see through it to the thing you’re writing about. All you notice is that the writing doesn’t get in the way of your getting the information you need. Like water in a stream, when it’s clearest you can easily see what’s on the bottom. Literary prose is different, of course, but in the workaday prose of the things we write every day, the best condition is to be unnoticeable. Like French essayist Michel de Montaigne says of children: their best condition is to be free of smell.


The reason that this is a problem is that it makes good writing difficult to teach from a positive perspective. Because good writing is hard to see, many of our rules about writing are expressed as proscriptions: don’t do this, don’t do that. Bad writing is just so much easier to see. Indeed, with bad writing that’s all we can see. That’s what makes it bad: readers can see the words on the page, but they can’t tell what we’re talking about.

We have institutionalized so many rules that tell us what’s wrong with bad writing and fewer that offer to show us what’s right about good writing. Even the greatest and most enduring advice from the Venerable Professor Strunk and his co-Venerable Mr. White is couched in the negative: omit needless words.

But what is a needless word? What makes a word needless? Or to emphasize the positive, let’s ask the other question for a change: what makes a word necessary?

First, let’s remember our three fundamental questions:

What am I trying to say?

Who am I talking to?

And why?

Whether a word is necessary or not depends on how well it answers not just one of these questions, but all of them.

Years ago, I was writing a document in which I had to explain the process of statistical computer modeling that biologists use to project a species’ future. I was writing for readers like me, neither scientists nor statisticians, but reasonably intelligent. (Oh, hush.) I needed readers to understand this process clearly, so they would be able to follow a later discussion about how fisheries are managed sustainably in the face of uncertainty.

Statistical modelling is a complex subject, but I didn’t need to get into the weeds; I just needed to describe what it does and in language that was simple without being insulting. I wrote:

Without going into the details of statistical analysis and model-building here, we can say that, as the name suggests, model builder software allows us to create models: statistical replicas of a fish population that, while not as accurate as, say, a photograph, nevertheless provide scientists with a statistically reasonable facsimile of what a population looks like and what it will look like at a given time in the near future.

That’s a long sentence—70 words—but it’s what grammarians call a “periodic sentence,” a sentence constructed of shorter clauses that allow readers to move through the sentence step-by-step without losing the thread.

It could have been shorter. I could have written, “Scientists use statistical model-building software to create statistical replicas of fish population dynamics at present and in the near future.”

That’s 20 words, instead of 70.

So are 50 words in my original sentence needless?

They may be needless from a dictionary’s point-of-view, but we don’t write for dictionaries. Dictionaries are terrible readers. They see only a fraction of a word’s meaning, the denotation, but not how the word fits or what it weighs or whether it tries to run away with your hand when you pick it up.

This concept of statistical modeling: I wanted my readers to really get it. I didn’t want them merely skimming the paragraph because the words seemed, on their face, to be just more socioeconomicoscientifilegalistical sweepings from the bureaucratic bologna factory.

I wanted readers to hear a warm, friendly voice explaining this complex stuff to them in patient terms. Patience means taking our time. In writing, that means using words not just for what they mean but also for how they sound in our reader’s ears. I wanted the words to help me create a certain voice. Most of the words in that long sentence are necessary for that reason: to create a more leisurely pace, a more human voice; to invite readers into understanding the concept instead of beating them over the head with it. I used the words to make my prose sound more like the way we actually talk to each other.

• Jim Hale can be reached through his website at www.jimhalewriting.com


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