“17. Omit needless words.”
—The Elements of Style, Strunk and White
Strunk’s brief advice – in keeping with the nature of the rule – has made it through numerous revisions, including that of White’s, maintaining the concise nature of his 1918 edition text. People still live by this rule. My high school AP English teacher would simply write “#17” next to entire paragraphs in our papers, and thus we would know: too wordy. Alas, so much easier said than done.
I love editing the work of others, but sometimes editing my own work is nigh impossible. We silly humans grow attached to the words we see as the most intelligent and appropriate ways of expressing ourselves. We are blinded by our affection for our clever minds. We make perfect sense to ourselves, and any confusion is due to the reader’s ineptness. Right?
As Stephen King so blatantly put it in On Writing, we need to “kill our darlings.” Maim that which we love. Push it so far to the edge that we hardly recognize it. Take it too far and then bring it back. An easy enough principle, but I often find myself stuck, saying I can’t possibly edit the piece down any further. It’s always untrue. Instead of settling, I need to sacrifice my brilliance and thus my pride for the sake of the words, the story. It’s all about the story, anyway. So take out those unnecessary words. Your writing will be stronger for it.