Copy Editing Commandment #3: Thou Shalt Omit Needless Words

One of J. D.  Salinger’s children once commented in an interview that getting the attention of the reclusive writer was difficult. Salinger apparently would not respond when one of his children said, “Dad?” Rather, he would wait for them to say whatever it was they wanted to say. Of course, thinking that he wasn’t listening, the children probably walked away from their father with their questions unasked, which suited the preoccupied writer just fine, I’m guessing.

As a parent, I can empathize with Salinger. Children often don’t have their questions fully formed before they summon you, leaving you hanging after the introductory “Mom?” Add three or more kids to the mix, and a parent could be answering “Yes?” all day, which would be nothing short of draining for an introvert.

But enough about me and Salinger and parenting young children. Omitting needless words is not just a handy tool for introverts trying to conserve energy; it’s a tool for good writing.

Editors identify needless words — including clichés, redundancies, clunky expressions, and jargon — and cut them:

  • She thinks outside the box.
  • She’s a creative thinker. (Showing how she thinks creatively instead of simply stating so would be better.)
  • The fact of the matter is that she was too tired to keep her temper.
  • She was too tired to keep her temper.
  • My father and I came to an agreement.
  • My father and I agreed.
  • We are part of a world-class, action-oriented, and inclusive public education system. (I recently read this sentence in a newsletter.)
  • We are part of an active, inclusive, world-class public education system.

I’ve used simple examples to illustrate how easily needless words can slip into text. As a public service to your readers, remove them. Don’t confuse wordiness with importance. Obey commandment #3 and experience how pithiness is next to godliness.

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Filed under content creation, editing and writing, line editing

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