Which Words Can You Live Without?

Editing Your Writing

On November 19th, 1863, popular orator Edward Everett gave a two-hour speech that nobody remembers. Following Everett, President Abraham Lincoln stood up, delivered 269 words now known as the Gettysburg Address, and sat down. Lincoln’s two-minute speech is regarded as one of the greatest in American history.

Omit needless words.

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Reader Comments (63)

  1. says

    Interesting point. Abe Lincoln was famous for being right on the target, and I guess the American public was just tired of the Civil War, so he cut the speech short.

    This has inspired me to write a new topic at my forum http://www.nerdcouncil.com – I’ll make it as short as possible.

  2. says

    This is so on target!! In fact, I posted on avoiding redundancy in writing yesterday.

    Of course, your post is shorter and more to the point. It’s probably also more memorable.

  3. says

    Holistic. I hate that word! It’s a word politicians in my country use all the time. Every plan is a/an holistic plan.

    And no, it’s not that country. My sister is not #4 prostitute 😀

  4. says

    I love the Gettysburg Address… it’s simple yet eloquent.. that reminds me.. when growing up, my dad used to liked to give us lectures that would last couple of hours. That was one of our punishments. I remember my leg falling asleep sometimes.. man did he like to talk.. but it was couple of sentences he said from time to time.. (not during lecture) that I remember the most.

  5. says

    Quality over quantity!

    The number of words doesn’t matter. The power, emotion and value they bring to the reader – that’s important.

    So, I agree – throw away needless words. :)

  6. says

    The other thing that’s interesting about the Address is the number of times that he used “here” (I think it’s 8). I wonder if some editors would have said that at least one of those uses was redundant? And yet it’s the repetition and emphasis of “here” that adds power to the speech.

    A neat reminder that it’s not just the number of words but how you use them.

    Joanna

  7. says

    In 1773, Samuel Johnson advised writers to be harsh with their word count: “Read over your compositions,” he said, “and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” History shows the benefits of ruthless editing.

  8. says

    It all depends what you are trying to convey, but yes, especially when you are writing, and more specially when you are copywriting, needless words do more harm than good.

    In literature I’m quite flexible though. Sometimes when you read Dostoevsky or Dickens, you feel like they just go on and on. But I love these guys as writers.

  9. says

    HA!, I too was looking for the more link, then I clicked on the title thinking Opera was doing the nasty with me again. Ok Brian you’re a card !!! Umm is this a record for you? “the shortest post on copyblogger?”

  10. says

    OK everyone, I do admit to playing editor here. Muhammad wrote a nice longer article on brevity, and I said “We can’t write at length on brevity… it’s just not right!” :)

    Sometime in the near future we will publish the rest of the piece, because Mu had two techniques and some great examples on how to omit needless words.

  11. Roshawn says

    Like everyone else, I agree.

    However, I find it difficult to be brief when writing my novel. Oh well, I guess I’ll have a lot of rewriting to do.

  12. says

    I try and eliminate the phrase, “I think” when writing on my blog. It’s my blog, of course they’re my thoughts. You don’t really need to preface your own thoughts with the phrase, “I think.”

  13. says

    I totally agree. I grew up learining to write like that, so I was totally in my element – but later on in my school career my family moved and that school district was very into formulaic writing, and adding a lot of “BS” to papers. I had a very hard time learning how to add fluff to a paper, and even then I still ended up short! I had one teacher though that appreciated it a lot.

  14. says

    Wow, funny – I just went to Gettysburg yesterday and heard about this, and now it’s a post! Haha…anyways, it is a great point. Rambling is bad. Ever notice how paragraphs in newspapers are only 2 to 3 sentences long? They’re straight and to the point, no frills. Keep the user’s attention.

  15. says

    @ legbamel : I think the title of this post is the short version of the technique.

    Just write and see if you can find words we can remove, sentences we can replace with shorter ones, and so on.

    I’m still learning this as well, so this post is a nice boost.

  16. says

    The most difficult class I took in college was a freshman composition class. The purpose of the class was to teach the students to write concisely. It’s hard to be brief and choose the right words, and I had not been reminded about it for quite some time until reading this post. Now I am going to try and write much more succinctly in the future.

  17. says

    We certainly wouldn’t forget about that. :)

    But there is a fundamental difference between content structure and brevity. Writing list items and bullet points that communicate more with fewer words would be a combination of the two concepts.

    • shauna says

      Have you read “Plain Style” by Richard Lauchman? Great book. It will help you eliminate useless words.

  18. says

    Brevity, and the use of it, is paramount in writing great copy. This is what I’ve learned from this post and others like Joe Sugerman.

    It seems though, that are certain lines of copy essential and it’s hard for me to sometimes figure out, “hey, does this really need to go or can it stay?” Is it important enough?

    That’s where the rubber meets the road.

  19. says

    Some of my favorite – and hopefully most effective – posts are those that I’ve rehashed over the course of multiple edits. I often compose blog posts off-line just so I’ll have the opportunity to review and distill the content down prior to pressing the “publish” button.

  20. says

    I guess the art is to be simple and to the point, yet give enough detail to get the point across. I am a fan of lists in blog “articles” also!

  21. says

    I know and understand that short pithy posts are much more efficient but I always feel the need to explain everything and fill in the background information because I don’t want my readers to be confsed and take away the wrong impr …Oh, you know what I mean 😉

  22. says

    Many of us had teachers in school that required a minimum essay length (5 pages, 40 pages, whatever). We learned to write superfluously to fill up those papers with empty words! Now you’re telling me I must unlearn what they taught me in school? 😉

  23. says

    This is an incredible post. I am a wordy writer; I love detailed words. But I know there is a better way to achieve this. Thanks!

  24. says

    I chuckled after reading this post, I thought it would’ve been longer! I have an affinity to look at the number of words in my blog posts as I write to make sure I have at least 250 down. I usually try to play with brevity by offering a video to compliment the short post.

  25. says

    Sometimes is not a matter of words. A good graphic or image is often more powerful and persuasive online than even the most succinct text.

  26. Dia Lacina says

    In addition to trimming the fat from copy, one should kill words that have lost meaning (for whatever reason).

    Words I can live without…

    Hope

    Need (as a noun)

  27. says

    Brian, I normally don’t re-publish entire posts from other sites on my blog, but this was such an excellent example of the effectiveness of brevity that I really wanted my clients and readers to see this. Of course I linked back to you and the article on copyblogger.com.

    You can see it on my blog at: http://bit.ly/i8yTpl – let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to change. Thanks again!


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