I chose Strunk and White’s Elements of Style to be the first in my series of Indispensable Writing Books just because it has what I think is the single best sentence of writing advice ever given. It’s right there in the table of contents, the title of Part III, Number 13.
Omit needless words.
It sounds too simple to be real advice, and a number of people misconstrue it, but when you understand what it’s saying, it’s tremendous advice.
If you clink on the link in that table of contents, you’ll get the full text of Number 13:
Vigorous writing is concise. 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. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
The concept of necessary words, and the definition of them as words that tell can be incredibly powerful. If you’re looking at non fiction, the fact of the matter is that clarity is paramount. There’s magic in a simple declarative sentence followed by more simple declarative sentences that take the reader from the introduction to a concept through all the details they need to know.
It’s a little bit different with fiction, because you’re not just trying to solve a problem or educate the reader. You’re trying to characterize your characters. You’re trying to do things with setting and mood and all the other things that go into making a tremendous reading experience.
One might think that omitting needless words means paring down on description and mood and colorful dialogue and all those kinds of fun things.
Description is necessary. Mood is necessary. Characterization is necessary.
When you’re editing—and that’s when you should be applying this advice—you should be looking at a word or a phrase and asking if that word or phrase is necessary. Some words are necessary just because they’re all the connecty bits that hold the rest of the words together. Some are necessary just because they are the meat of what you’re trying to convey.
And some of them are necessary because they convey mood, or add to the characterization of a character, or any of a bunch of other things.
When you’re looking at a word or phrase to see if it is necessary, you first need to ask yourself if the mood, description, or characterization is necessary, not just in the book, but in that spot in the book. If the answer is no, cut it. If the answer is yes, ask if the words are necessary to convey what you want to convey about mood, theme, character, or whatever, and if not, cut them out and find better words.
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