I live in the city of Phoenix, in the state of Arizona. I do my best work between the hours of 2pm and 4pm in the afternoon, for the simple reason that those are the hours I feel clearest and most awake. So I try to ignore interruptions during that period of time, in order to focus on work.
Notice anything awful about that first paragraph? (And not that I have a boring life. That’s true but not the point here.)
How many useless phrases did you catch in those first three sentences? Take another look, and ask yourself if the paragraph would be any less clear without:
- the city of
- the state of
- the hours of
- in the afternoon
- for the simple reason that
- period of time
- in order to
Want to write a terrible document? Stuff it with official-sounding but unnecessary phrases like these.
Now, there are times when some of these phrases are useful. “He works for the City of New Orleans” might be a perfectly legitimate statement, to indicate a person works for the city’s government. But how about, “I live in the city of New Orleans?” If you removed “the city of” and just wrote, “I live in New Orleans,” would your reader think New Orleans is the name of your house?
You’ve probably seen wasted phrases like these many times in the documents you read at work. Here are a few more of my favorites:
In the month of
(Hmm. I’ll bet $10 that the next word here is going be one of the months.)
Due to the fact that
(I’ll trade you for a “because” — and you can keep the change.)
By virtue of
(Hey, I’ve got another “because” handy.)
Conduct a review
(Do yourself a favor and just “review” — you’ll be done sooner.)
A difficult dilemma
(As opposed to…)
Part of the reason so many professionals write in this bloated style is that they think their writing comes across more seriously this way. “Between the hours of 2pm and 4pm in the afternoon.” Ooh, so formal. Impressive, right?
No. What comes across is that the writer doesn’t trust the reader to understand that the period between “2pm and 4pm” is measured in hours… and not, say, inches or pesos. It also suggests the reader might be too stupid to catch the writer’s clever code “pm” and needs to be told that those times are “in the afternoon.”
One more theory: We write with extra words like this because of our schooling. Page length and word count mattered when we were youngsters. In fact, our teachers often rewarded us for the physical heft of our documents.
Did you ever finish writing a paper for school and, if it didn’t hit the minimum page length, try to fatten it up by stuffing an extra “that” everywhere you could? (Or did I just make a really embarrassing confession?)
Unless your supervisor actually asks you to hit a minimum word count in your work-related documents, cut ruthlessly when you edit.
Relevant confession: In my first draft of that sentence above, I wrote, “… cut ruthlessly during the editing process.” Is “editing process” clearer than “edit?”
Related relevant confession: Earlier in this article, where I wrote “documents,” in my first draft I actually wrote “written documents.” As opposed to what, Robbie? “Finger-painted documents?” Cut. Be ruthless.
I leave you with these words of advice. Nothing shows the seriousness and professionalism of your documents more powerfully than when you write them clearly, to the point, and without one unnecessary phrase.
Put more succinctly: Don’t waste words.