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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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Eliminate wordiness to write with power

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Also see exercise on eliminating wordiness.


Youíve heard it many times. Donít waste your readerís time. Avoid wordy expressions.

"Omit needless words," Strunk and White say in The Elements of Style. "Omit surplus words," Richard Wydick tell us in Plain English for Lawyers. "Clutter is the disease of American writing," William Zinsser says in On Writing Well.

From many authorities you hear the same message. Make every word count. Compressing your language adds emphasis to your writing and adds power to your style. But what types of wordiness are common? What are the patterns?

Letís begin with three types of redundancy:

Redundant modifiers Some words require no modification. They stand on their own. Itís a true fact. Ask anyone in the immediate vicinity. Do you have any personal opinions on the subject? Past memories? Should I stop referring back to these obvious examples? Do you see the end result, or should I continue on? If you can find the eight examples of redundant modifiers in this paragraph, you deserve a free gift.

Redundant pairs Itís a habit formed in 1066 when William the Conqueror invaded England and imposed a new language on the locals, who were naturally resentful, so they began pairing the new words with their old ones, and 941 years later we still have the habit. So first and foremost I hope and trust that each and every one of you will make a full and complete effort to eliminate any and all, as well as various and sundry, redundant pairs from your writing. And so on and so forth.

Redundant categories Another pattern to watch for is the tendency to state an attribute and then, perhaps in an effort to be precise, to state its broader category. The typeface you are reading, for example, is black in color, and though it is relatively small in size, I hope you find it attractive in appearance. Some variations in typeface, of course, are only cosmetic in appearance.

In addition to these three types of redundancy, there are two more common sources of wordiness:

Meaningless modifiers We all have little mannerisms that help us find our words and formulate our thoughts, but basically sometimes these mannerisms basically become a crutch and basically become annoying. Totally. Well, actually they virtually become a drum beat that effectively distracts the reader from our message. Definitely. Sort of.

Wordy expressions Until such time as (until) you learn to spot these patterns during the course of (during) your editing, you will waste your readerís time. In the event that (if) you let one of these wordy expressions slide by prior to sending (before you send) your message, you should try harder the next time owing to the fact that (because) in the final analysis (finally) thereís always another message to write.

In addition to these patterns of redundancy and wordiness, fancy words can distract and annoy your readers. So if you want to endeavor to effectuate a change in your style, I deem it imperative you commence tout de suite.

Exercise on eliminating wordiness




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