In The Elements of Style, iconic authors William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White called word clutter “the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood out of words.”
Yes, the same E.B. White who gave us beloved children’s stories like Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan and Charlotte’s Web also gave us that visceral description…
What is word clutter? Word clutter refers to unnecessary words in a sentence. Why – and how – do you eliminate them? If Strunk and White’s metaphor doesn’t make a believer out of you, then read on, because voiding word clutter in your writing will help you become a better, more effective communicator.
To clutter or not to clutter – that is the question.
When writing poetry, descriptive words are acceptable – even expected – because you’re trying to paint a picture with words. The art is in the rhyme, the imagery, the emotions you want to invoke in your audience.
But in business communication, it’s imperative that you trim the excess fat. Your readers are busy like you – they don’t need to wade through extra words to get the meaning of your message.
No one in business wants to think of themselves as a “cog in the wheel,” but Strunk Jr. summed up the importance of brevity beautifully:
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.
Your business is like a piece of machinery, and efficiency matters. So, do your reader a favor: tune up your writing and whack out the extra phrases.
“Word clutter” refers to unnecessary words that don’t add meaning to a sentence. When you’re writing a non-fiction book or an email, whack them out. This often means choosing an active, rather than the passive verb.
Take time to fine-tune your message by whacking these phrases:
- “is intended to” or “is meant to” or “is designed to”
Example: “He gives a workshop that is designed to teach writing skills.”
Fine-tune it: “He gives a workshop that teaches writing skills.”
- “it is all about” or “the fact of the matter is” or “it’s important to remember that”
Example: “It’s important to remember that it’s unwise to drive during a blizzard.”
Fine-tune it: “It’s unwise to drive during a blizzard.”
- “is going to”
Example: “She is going to be a key contributor.”
Fine-tune it: “She will be a key contributor.”
- “In order to…”
Example: “Add keywords in order to describe the new position.”
Fine-tune it: “Add keywords to describe the new position.”
- “there is” or “there will be”
Example: “There will be several managers attending the meeting.”
Fine-tune it: “Several managers will attend the meeting.”
- “The reason why is that”
Example: “The meeting has been moved to the 2nd-floor conference room. The reason why is that we need more seating capacity.”
Fine-tune it: “The meeting was moved to the 2nd-floor conference room because we need more seating capacity.”
- “at this time”
Example: “We’re not accepting any more registrations for the conference at this time.”
Fine-tune it: We’re not accepting registrations for the conference now.”
Never forget: more words don’t necessarily give more meaning, especially in business communication. Your time is valuable. Show respect to your colleagues by trimming your emails, memos and reports – whack wordiness! You’ll be doing your colleagues a favor.
Now, do yourself a favor: get a red pen and take time to read over a recent email or letter you wrote. Ask, “Did I really need that word/phrase?” Circle all the unnecessary words. Then think about the time you could have saved yourself and your reader if you’d left them out! A little investment in time at the beginning of your writing project will save you and your readers time in the long run.
Do you have any “pet peeves” when it comes to word clutter? I’d love to know about them. If you’d like more helpful tips, you can sign up for Word Trippers Tips or book a WordShop for your whole team to strengthen your business writing skills.
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This article was originally published on March 26th, 2015, and has since been updated.