Improve Your Writing Style: Ten Words to Cut From Your Paper

Unnecessary Words in Writing

"Omit needless words." This succinct instruction is the 17th principle of composition in Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. Your writing will be stronger if every word serves a purpose, with no unnecessary clutter. How do you make sure every word counts? If you are just starting out at developing a concise writing style, you can get started by cutting these words from your paper.

Unnecessary Adverbs

Strunk & White’s advises, "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs." This advice is not intended to say adjectives and adverbs should be completely removed from your writing; the authors add that "they are indispensable parts of speech." Beginning writers often use adverbs as a lazy way to "fix" weak writing. The following adverbs are among the most abused:

1. Basically. With rare exceptions, this word is useless. Remove it from your sentence and see how the sentence suddenly becomes more focused.

2. Slightly. Like its cohort "faintly," this word is used as a lazy way to express the idea of subtlety. Sentences using these words are uniformly dull and lifeless. Consider these examples:

"He looked slightly green."

"He looked faintly green."

Neither conveys a good image of how the person looked. A better alternative:

"He looked queasy."

3. Somewhat. This word sucks all power and color from the word it modifies. Avoid it.

4. Arguably. If you are making an argument, then the reader already knows that what you are saying is "arguably" true—by definition. Most of the time, "arguably" only serves to weaken your point. Similar offenders include "perhaps" and "practically." Be bold in your assertions, and leave out qualifiers. Think about these examples; which one is strongest?

"It is arguably the most…"

"It is perhaps the most…"

"It is practically the most…"

"It is the most…"

5. Very. This word is used more than any other to extend a paper to meet a minimum number of words. Teachers always notice.

6. Extremely. If you need to use this word to make your point come across, then the word it modifies is not strong enough.

7. Whatsoever. This word adds nothing of value.

Sentence Starters

8. However. While occasionally useful, this word is so overworked in many compositions that it loses all power and makes your writing tedious.

9. Well. Make it a rule never to start a sentence with the interjection "well." Inexperienced writers sometimes think it will create a conversational tone. But a conversational tone rarely improves your writing, and in the few cases where it is appropriate, this word is the worst way to create it.

10. Also. If you are making multiple points—especially more than two—beware of "also." It can sneak into your composition too many times and change good writing into a mechanical, repetitive morass. Cut it anywhere you can so it remains useful.

Towards a Concise Writing Style

In the right circumstances, each of these words can serve a purpose in your writing. If cutting these words makes your writing seem unclear, take it as a sign that your sentences are weak. Try rewriting them so that they make your point clearly without needless words. Keep these ten words in reserve and bring them out only at strategic times, and they can remain useful tools to bolster your style.