Confessions of an Editor: I Hate Your Needless Words

Years ago when I first learned my trade, I remember wondering why my writing mentors railed so hard against passive voice writing. We’re all guilty of it, most people don’t see anything wrong with it, and passive voice is one of the dead giveaways to an editor that you aren’t quite the kick-ass writer you think you are. Your cover letter might be exciting, your query compelling, but once you include those needless words and break the number one Strunk and White commandment, you are DOOMED.

Unfortunately, getting rid of passive voice is not the whole answer. Your writing needs help if you still use garbage words and phrases. What do I consider a garbage word or phrase? Read on:

“The new Remington Rifle can often be used to hunt small animals, but its real purpose is to shoot down big game.” 

Tell me, just WHAT is the purpose of using the word “often” in that sentence? Never mind the rest of the errors for a moment, concentrate on that phrase “can often be used”. This is too much fat and not enough meat.

Try this on for size:

“Some use the new Remington Rifle to hunt small animals, but its real purpose is to shoot down big game.” 

Why does this sentence read better? Because it gets to the point and obeys Strunk and White by OMITTING NEEDLESS WORDS.  Now look at the rest of this sentence. “…but its real purpose is to shoot down big game.”

“Shoot DOWN”??? I know it is vernacular, but it’s still too wordy. It’s an late beginner/intermediate writer’s mistake. It sounds a bit poetic, but if you are writing an article, or trying to pitch an article, leave the prose for later. Creative nonfiction aside, trimming the fat and getting to the nitty gritty is what’s important here.

“Some  use the new Remington Rifle to hunt small animals, but its real purpose is to shoot big game.”

Why “take into consideration” when you can simply “consider”? Why “in lieu of” when “instead” works better? Do you really need to write”Another truck can be an excellent solution” when “another truck is an excellent solution” cuts out the fat? “Birth control is a hotly-contested issue” may work well under some circumstances, especially if you hate the alliteration of “Birth control is controversial.” But knowing where to draw the line is important. Note that I don’t say “especially important”. I am guilty of this one, but I am trying to cut it out of my material wherever possible.

Now let’s take a bit of creative license and use some colorful prose in a non-fiction article and see what happens when we stick with the notion that it’s good to omit needless words.

“First gear–the start of the journey. As you wind around the curves, nothing seems dangerous or out of control. You still hear traffic noise as you shift into second, but it fades away with increased speed. Watch the needle creep to the right until you hear nothing but wind and the whine of a motor ready for the next gear. Shifting into third, you reach the place where man and machine are one. What happens to the bike happens to you.” 

This little description could easily run for a full paragraph, but why bother? You have the gist of the scene with few words but far greater impact. Four sentences is all that’s necessary.

As an editor, I see a lot of needless words, and worse yet, badly used words. I hate badly constructed sentences and see them all the time in writing. A sign in one of my favorite liquor stores is a great example:

“No cell phones inside store! They are vexing and insolent.”

I agree with the sentiment, but the useage is wrong. A cell phone can indeed be vexing, and a person can be insolent. A cell phone? Insolent? Never. It’s a bloody inanimate object.

This article could go on and on, but I think I’ve served up plenty of food for thought. Go ahead–critique me and red-pencil my own heinous violations in this piece. I know here are probably a few. If you are a fanatic about getting down to the meat of the work, you have to learn to take your lumps. So go ahead…