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Learn to identify needless words and promote clarity

Mel Bochner, Blah Blah Blah, 2009. Oil on velvet in two parts, 125.7 x 190.5 x 4 cm. Courtesy Galerie Neslson-Freeman, Paris.
Mel Bochner, Blah Blah Blah, 2009.

A couple of months back, Forbes.com published 10 Tips For Better Business Writing. Tip #3 was “Omit needless words.”

The author echoed the time-honored advice of William Strunk, Jr., in The Elements of Style published by Cornell University, where he worked as an English professor, in 1919. (You may be more familiar with later editions of the book by Strunk & White.)

Sadly, as Geoff Pullam wrote in 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,

Many [recommendations] are useless, like “Omit needless words.” (The students who know which words are needless don’t need the instruction.)

I mean who could argue with such advice? No one. That makes it a platitude.

Fiction writers call wordy style purple prose, and WriteWorld offers these examples to clarify.

Plain: He set the cup down.
Middle Ground: He eased the Big Gulp onto the table.
Purple Prose: Without haste, the tall, blond man lowered the huge, plastic, gas station cup with a bright red straw onto the slick surface of the coffee table.

Far more than creative writers, workplace readers make fun of purple prose. And those who write it. Pros prefer the plain (concise) style over the elaborate prose of pseudo-literary geniuses.

Keep in mind that not all redundancy is bad. Over at Sentence First, editor Stan Carey notes the key is whether redundancy makes the message more meaningful or memorable. And linguist Gabe Doyle at Motivated Grammar reminds us that redundancy is important precisely because communication is a noisy system. The issue here is identifying which words are needless so you can get rid of them and keep only the ones that communicate your intended message to your reader.

Principles for achieving conciseness are explained in Chapter 11 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using that book in an academic setting, you should work through exercises in that chapter, which will help you apply the principles as you identify and fix obstacles to concise prose. Here are some additional resources to help you reduce wordiness:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if I can provide you with more helpful resources.

Sample Document

Read this executive summary from a business plan for a non-profit. The document was created by me based on one found at Bplans.com, but it has been adapted specifically to help you think about conciseness in workplace documents.

  • Writer: director of a non-profit food bank
  • Reader: decision makers at philanthropic foundations
  • Bottom Line Message: provide the organization with funding because it provides important services in an effective and efficient manner

Here’s a version of that executive summary revised for wordiness.

Video Tutorial

The executive summary is included in this 11-minute video about using conciseness to create better efficiency for workplace readers.  To improve your writing efficiency, the video also clarifies the best time within the process of creating a document to think about conciseness and other stylistic features. Plus it demonstrates that conciseness promotes a more forceful and confidant tone.

Related Readings

There are posts here at Pros Write that deal with conciseness in workplace documents. Just enter the term in the search field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, you might check out the following articles.

Campbell, K. S., Brammer, C., & Amare, N. (1999). Exploring how instruction in style affects writing quality. Business Communication Quarterly, 62(3), 71–86.

Fagel, S., & Westerfelhaus, R. (2005). Charting managerial reading preferences in relation to popular management theory books: A semiotic analysis. Journal of Business Communication, 42(4), pp. 420–448.

Suchan, J., & Colucci, R. (1989). An analysis of communication efficiency between high-impact and bureaucratic written communication. Management Communication Quarterly, 2(4), pp. 454–484.

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