“If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.” –George Orwell
“As to the adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.” –Mark Twain
“I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” –Truman Capote
“In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written: you have no idea what vigor it will give to your style.” –Sydney Smith
Good writers use adverbs and adjectives sparingly. Qualifiers weaken writing. Instead, writers concentrate on using specific nouns, and strong verbs–usually worded in the simple past tense. Notice how the passage below improves when unnecessary words are weeded out.
Granny was always telling him to watch where he was going, and he really tried to keep his mind right on his feet. Maybe staring at them would help. He tried so hard to concentrate, but just looking at feet wasn’t very much fun. Pretty soon his mind proceeded to wander because of some really fascinating sight – maybe a fire engine screeching down the street, or a cool-looking van all covered with sort of zigzaggy designs. It might even be just a rather tired-looking ant lugging a very large crumb across the sidewalk. Anyway, he’d certainly forget his feet.
Here is the same passage with unnecessary words capitalized. These words make the passage drag:
Granny was ALWAYS telling him to watch where he was going, and he REALLY tried to keep his mind RIGHT on his feet. MAYBE staring at them would help. He tried SO hard to concentrate, but JUST looking at feet wasn’t VERY much fun. PRETTY SOON his mind PROCEEDED TO wander because of SOME REALLY fascinating sight – maybe a fire engine screeching down the street, or a cool-LOOKING van ALL covered with SORT OF zigzaggy designs. It might even be just a rather tired-LOOKING ant lugging a VERY large crumb across the sidewalk. ANYWAY, he’d CERTAINLY forget his feet.
Here is a rewrite of the passage above. Capitalized words have been cut, and verbs put into simple past tense. Notice how much faster and “cleaner” this passage reads:
Granny told him to watch where he was going, and he tried to keep his mind on his feet. Staring at them helped. He tried hard to concentrate, but looking at feet wasn’t much fun. His mind wandered to fascinating sights – a fire engine screeching down the street, a cool van covered with zigzaggy designs, or a tired ant lugging a large crumb across the sidewalk. He’d forget his feet.
Source of passage: “Talk About…Weedy Words,” by Ruth Craig. Institute of Children’s Literature, 1983.
A couple of teaching suggestions:
- After modeling how to cut words, give students a short “weedy” piece of writing to practice on–perhaps something you’ve written.
- Ask students to take a piece of their own writing–one that has gone through at least two drafts-and look for places to cut words. (Or they can trade papers with a partner and search for unnecessary words and phrases.)
From the Writing Curriculum Files of Children’s Author, Suzanne Williams www.suzanne-williams.com