Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Avoids: Useless Words

"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 sentences short, or avoid all details and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."
Quoted from: The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, Fourth Edition.

This small book is my Bible. At times, it becomes useful, but at other times...I forget about it and begin to break all the rules.
I am a master at using useless words, sometimes called needless words.

Examples of how to avoid some useless words:
he is a man who                        he
in a hasty manner                     hastily
used for fuel purposes              used for fuel
the reason why is                      because
the question as to whether       whether
owing to the fact that                since (or because)
the fact that I had arrived        my arrival

I own two books that were printed in 1893. One is titled Reveries of a Bachelor. The writing is flowery and filled with useless words. And I love every one of them.
"Shall he who has been hitherto a mere observer of other men's cares and business, moving off where they made him sick of heart, approaching whenever and wherever they made him gleeful, shall he now undertake administration of just such cares and business, without qualms? Shall he, whose whole life has been but a nimble succession of escapes from trifling difficulties, now broach without doubtings, that matrimony where if difficulty beset him, there is no escape?"

Here's my attempt to rewrite the passage in 2012 language:

"Should I ignore other men's problems but eagerly participate in their partying? Should I stop playing around with women and decide if marriage is worth the effort?"

I avoided using too many useless words, but I also stripped the passage of it's poetic voice.

In Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing, he states, "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. A rule came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words. What the writer is doing, is he's writing, perpetrating "hooptedoodle," perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character's head, and the reader either knows what the guy's thinking or doesn't care. I'll be you don't skip dialogue." (Note from Celia: count the number of useless words in this paragraph. Leonard Elmore obviously likes useless words.)

I believe Steinbeck coined the word "hooptedoodle," for two of the chapters in his "Sweet Thursday," are titled Hooptedoodle 1 and Hooptedoodle 2.
And Elmore Leonard said he read every word.

Useless words?  Useless phrases?
My weakness is using prepositional phrases:
the crowing of a rooster            or..the rooster's crow
a master of music                      or..a music master

On the other hand, I'm reading more novels with short choppy sentences, as though an editor...or the author...has studied this topic too much and cut the heart out of the voice.

The first manuscript I submitted to a publisher was rejected because "it read like a textbook." Yes, that's what I knew--how to write papers, not fiction.

Fiction needs to be concise and non-repetitive. But like Steinbeck writes, sometimes I want to write all that hooptedoodle. And I don't mind a smattering of useless words.

How do you feel about the topics?


  1. Hi Celia:

    I think “The Elements of Style” works best for nonfiction and especially advertising copy where you might be spending $100 a word for a national ad.

    I also think that saying the same thing with fewer words misses the main point. I perfect saying the same thing in a totally different way and in doing so use far fewer words. It’s not so much the words but how you put your thoughts together. Maureen Child, for example, can say in a half page what other romance writers might take two full pages to say. This is not because useless words were cut out of the copy. It is because a more efficient way was conceived to convey the same situation.

    In short, it’s not about less words. It’s about thinking more concisely.

    BTW: I have made no attempt to write this with the fewest words. If I were paying $100 a word, on the other hand, I might have figured out how to say all this in one short sentence. But it would have taken days.


  2. No wonder we like each other's writing so much. I'm also guilty of the lengthy prepositional phrases. I think very linearly but often of only one thing at a time.

    The distinction you are making is apt. To attain tight or "vigorous" writing, we have to take care to cultivate voice. Those things are often at odds, but I've found through practice that its easier to layer in a bit of this or that to keep voice; the trick though is moderation.

    I have the same trouble with the speedometer in my car. The top of the dial is at 80 mph. That's where I'm programmed to keep the speed needle. In older cars it used to be 50. Then 55. Then 60. In my last car it was 70. Doesn't seem like it would be fair if I got a ticket. Seems like carmakers should pay it.

    But I digress with hoooptedoodle.

    and yet that's the fun of writing. To read a prompt and have the freedom to write whatever comes to mind.

    Speaking of writing, I must get some done today or I'll be eating hooptedoodle for dinner.

    Thanks for the fun!

  3. I was particularly interested in this post as I have become increasingly incensed with editors' desire to strip out all 'unnecessary' words. I intend, in fact, to write an article myself along these lines. As your example so amply demonstrates, language is impoverished by this principle. If these people had their way, stories would just become lists of events. And, incidentally, Maggie, I'm just reading your 'In for a Penny' and I wouldn't change a word!

  4. Celia, I have that book and it helped me a lot when I started writing. Now I rely on my own ear and my judgment to see if a sentence and a paragraph are flowing smoothly. We are walking a thin line, too much wording slows the pace and can be boring; too little can be choppy and annoying.

  5. Celia, this is a fantastic topic and one I really relate to. As you know, in my writing I tend to be wordy and add details...often too many according to some reviewers.

    But when I read, I want the author to paint a picture for me with their words and when I write, that is my intent.

    In my mind, I compare writing to the work of a painter:
    What good would a painting of a sunset be if it were painted in blacks and whites? We would miss the vibrancy of the yellows, reds, and oranges, there would be no life, no depth, and the picture would be flat and uninteresting.

    So too is a book which is pared down to only the most necessary of words -- no life, no depth, no color, and of no interest (unless it is a mandatory textbook or technical manual).

    And let's not count the unnecessary words I've included here. LOL

  6. Great blog.
    Confessions of a serious over-writer here. My first drafts are a mess. I go back and read all the unnecessary words and cut them out. However, I still haven't mastered concise and poetic writing. I'm all for hooptedoodle!

    I don't like passive phrases though, like those prepositional phrase examples you gave.

  7. Oh, Celia, I LOVE HOOPTEDOODLE!!!! LOL Yes, I do tend to write "wordily"--but how can you follow every single piece of writing advice in the world? Don't use adverbs (well, adverbs replace a lot of "unnecessary" words when you're trying to shorten things down!) I love your example you gave of the flowery writing. That is such a gift, I think, to be able to write in that "old" style--the way a lot of the great classics were written. If that's so bad, why are they CLASSICS???? I do try to go through and pare down, but not the point where there is no story or emotion left. (I call that the Dragnet style of writing--as Joe Friday said, "Just want the facts, ma'am, just the facts.") Great post.

  8. What a great topic, Celia! And I will confess to being wordy. One professional reviewer of This Time Forever referred to my "slightly wordy" style but went on to say it added to the story. I like to ramble, a bad habit. And I hate it when an editor cuts out all of my adverbs. There are times when only an "ly" word will do.

  9. God created "l" words for a reason, in my opinion. The trouble I have with them is where to place them in the sentence, you know, to avoid those dangling participles...or some such thing.
    I'm loving most books I read these days, especially yours where I know I'll get all the details, all the hooptedoodle I want. But truly--too many romances are so choppy--I think it's to move the reader along a little faster. But I'm a slow read by nature, so those don't appeal to me.
    You just keep right on with those wordy stories!

  10. I know what you mean. I've just been hacking at my contest entry to try and get rid of the chaff, but it's hard because you lose so much of the voice, flavor and subtlety if you're not careful.

    I think I'm also influenced by audio books, especially the classics where the language is more ponderous and flowery but completely comprehensible.

    Great topic.

  11. Maggie--you crack me up. You always catch the subtle point and use it in your own comment. That is the gifted writer in you. Love it, and thanks!

  12. Vince--you made me laugh--I think you owe about 10000 dollars!
    I do agree with the points S&W make, and can even catch those in my own writing--most of the time. Still, an editor can find more. Using the prepositional phrases is a kind of lazy writing, I think.
    It's still a learning process.

  13. Jenny--when you write your article, be sure to tell me about it. I'm interested in what you say.
    Editors--yes, some editors of some publishers have been instructed to edit like this, and it's very annoying.
    I still love LaVyrle Spender's romances--she writes using many extra words, but they are mesmerizing, and I consider he the best in my opinion.

  14. Mona--a fine line it is, for sure. It's nice to know more now than I did a few short years ago, but still...I slip so much, and refer to some book I have to refresh my memory.
    My natural writiing style,I have been told many times, is how I talk. And when I talk, I do add more to the story than needs be said. Often, my dh will say..wait...back up, and continue with that about...whatever. I confuse him very much! If I write like that...I can see it much better and know what I'm doing.

  15. Back to Linda--I meant God created those "ly" words, in my opinion. There for a reason! Hah.

  16. Rebecca--I know you do love words, and I suppose that's what draws me to you. I'm still working on Texas True, and I've realized it's so long because of all the additional things I'm saying. I could have cut out quite a bit, but as I read my own writing...I like it. I actually get caught up in my own story! That is really a self-centered opinion, isn't it? But if we don't like our writing, then no one else will, either.
    Thanks for commenting. And..who's counting?

  17. Lynne--then you must write like Ernest Hemmingway did. A writer friend told me once, remember EH wrote and wrote, and then he go back and delte 2/3 of what he wrote to pare it down.
    My answer..sure..He could outwrite me any day. There's no way I could ever write as many words as he did.
    As for your writing, it's done in a wonderful manner. I still remember the RV, the guy she picks up...etc.

  18. Cheryl--I know! I read your letters, remember? You're the queen of hooptedoodle, and you know I read every word. Thanks for chiming in...I loved your comment.

  19. Maddy--don't hack out too much! Yes, the classics--wordy to beat the band, and we read it all, don't we. Like the example I copied from the 1893 book--my goodness, was that wordy. These old books are small, precious volumes, and I hate to read them very much because the paper and the binding is so fragile. But they are wonderful.

  20. Celia, I think you summed it well when you rephrased the 1893 passage - it lost it's poetic voice. And that's important. Sometimes those little "nunsense" words are just the words that give the writing the voice. I'm all for a little fun, but as with anything, it requires a balance and skill.


  21. Thank you, Steph, for recognizing that removing all those extra words took the poetic voice out of it. And that's what made the book so intriguing. The Bachelor in and book really doesn't do much. An entire chapter is devoted to his tiny cottage and how he brings in wood for his fireplace...simple mundane things such as this. But it makes for good reading. You really become interested in his fireplace!
    Thanks--in your busy life for taking time to stop by.

  22. Personally, I think there are too many rules floating around and they can take away from a story. I'm tired of hearing them. Here is the best post I've found about these rules from one of my favorite authors
    Write it the way you believe it should be written.

  23. An interesting topic, Celia - and a lot of interesting comments too. I'm like Mona in that I reply on my own ear - which works even better when you read your writing out loud. I don't like long descriptive passages but I don't like short, choppy narrative either. I try to steer the middle course, I think. Not necessarily consciosly, but from some kind of inner sixth sense.

  24. Lisa--I'll save the link and read it. The sometimes excessive rules on writing any kind of romance, I believe, is one of the reasons more authors are going Indie. True, most say it's because of the money...which is a perfect reason..but too many of us have had our manuscripts "torn up" by an editor that either wants it written her way, or wants it re-written to re-submit. I do need an editor..I admit, I cannot put a ms up without an editor going through it. And I have such a one now who finds errors I fail to see, and I appreciate that so much. Not once, has she tried to get me to re-write the story.
    So, you and I agree. Thanks for the link, and for your input.

  25. Paula, yes, of course, the moderate way is better. I don't read mine out loud, but I know that is a useful practice. I just feel so stupid doing it!
    But what I've found very effective is to email my document to my Kindle, and it gets automatically formatted to look just like an ebook. Then when I read my own writing, I see errors I did not see on the document. Some editors say change the font to edit--that alone will make us see more. But I prefer emailing it to my Kindle.

  26. I have The Elements of Style but I can't tell you when the last time was that I cracked it open. Maybe I should but, after reading this article, perhaps not.
    I guess the bible is full of useless words, too. It could be sifted down to: a lot of people followed God and suffered, but at last, God sent his only son to save the world and only a few listened.
    Gee, that takes the message out of it for sure.
    As a backstory addict, I can honestly say I'm guilty of too many unnecessary words, too. I only catch this stuff when I read my MS aloud--and then I still miss things.
    Great blog.

  27. Thank you, Sarah! I still love this small book--the rules are easily readable, and they don't go overboard. I have read novels in which the author goes on and on about something--often internal dialogue. Overdone equals tiresome and boring.
    But each author has a voice, and the worst thing to happen to a ms is to kill that author's voice.