Unnecessary Words

It's easy to overwrite. We're so busy searching for that perfect word, that when we come up with one, we want to use it — and another and another. All of a sudden, every noun is clarified by an adjective; every verb has a trailing adverb. We describe things down to the tiniest detail — and wind up writing stories that overload readers with unnecessary verbiage. We pile on the similes and make sure every sentence contains a metaphor. If one descriptor is good, then two must be better.

“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.”

— E. B. White and William Strunk, from The Elements of Style

When editing your work, remember the saying “less is more.” Using powerful language will eliminate the need to load up on the adjectives. And checking carefully to see that every word imparts some information, or is necessary to a phrase or description, will keep your writing moving. If you're describing a mountainous area as part of a travel article, saying that the rocks are light gray is unnecessary — many rocks are a grayish color, and readers know this without your telling them. If, on the other hand, the rocks are covered with pictographs, that's news and needs to be included. Providing every detail also gives your readers less of a chance to use their imagination. If you write that a scruffy cat suddenly appears in a little boy's yard, readers can decide if it's a marmalade-colored cat or a skin-and-bones cat or a playful cat. With just the right amount of guidance, readers can make their own associations.

Flash fiction, screenplays, children's books, and poems are good models of tight writing because their formats put every word at a premium. Studying these works will help you whittle your words down to the bare essentials for telling the tale.

Process of Elimination

To practice editing wordy text, try eliminating the unnecessary words in the following sentence:

As the blood red dawn broke widely across the gray blue hills and the dark green lake, four men dressed in hip boots, tan vests, and heavy, large overcoats stood drinking small cups of steaming coffee as they waited for the noisy approaching boat.


Also watch out for redundant words and phrases. You don't need to write the “month of June;” readers know that June is a month. Likewise it's unnecessary to write “the bag was completely full;” full means completely filled, and adding completely is redundant. And never say “very unique.” Unique is unique.

  1. Home
  2. Creative Writing
  3. Word Usage Pitfalls
  4. Unnecessary Words
Visit other About.com sites: