shallow focus photo of gray steel trash bin

Get rid of unnecessary words

Have you ever been told your work is longwinded? You can fix this problem by following my tips for writing succinctly and editing your work before you finalise it.

Why bother writing succinctly?

Compare succinct writing with longwinded writing and you’ll find it’s not only shorter, but also:

  • easier to read
  • quicker to read
  • more likely to be read
  • less likely to be misunderstood
  • more professional.

How do I get rid of unnecessary words?

There are several ways to write succinctly, and one of them is getting rid of unnecessary words.

If you’ve worked hard on writing a document, you may be emotionally attached to words you’ve written, even if they don’t add any value to the writing. But being ruthless and removing redundant words from your sentences will make your writing sharper and easier to read. If you can’t be ruthless, use an editor to help you.

There are six main ways to get rid of unnecessary words. Combine these with other techniques for writing succinctly to achieve clear, crisp text.

Tip #1: remove unnecessary adverbs, adjectives or qualifiers

Adverbs, adjectives and qualifiers are often unnecessary. Identify any in your writing and see if you can remove them without changing the meaning of your sentences.

Adverbs are words that describe a verb, such as ‘strongly’ or ‘completely’.

Adjectives are words that describe a noun, such as ‘big’ or ‘great’.

Qualifiers (sometimes called modifiers) are words like ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’.

Writers often add qualifiers like these to their writing.

  • actually
  • extremely
  • probably
  • basically
  • kind of
  • really
  • definitely
  • practically
  • very

Sometimes a word or phrase already implies the qualifier that’s been given to it; this makes the qualifier unnecessary. In this example the qualifiers ‘in advance’ and ‘completely’ are already implied by the words ‘anticipate’; and ‘revolutionise’:

We cannot anticipate in advance what will completely revolutionise how we tackle climate change.

Remove the unnecessary qualifiers to create a shorter, clearer sentence:

We cannot anticipate what will revolutionise how we tackle climate change.

Tip #2: remove redundant words

Sometimes pairs of words or short phrases contain words that mean the same thing. Some of these words are redundant and you can remove them from your writing without changing the meaning. Here are some examples.

OriginalReplacement
end resultresult
free giftgift
personal opinionopinion
full and completefull or complete
each and everyeach or every
first and foremostfirst
examined carefullyexamined
shouted loudlyshouted
glanced brieflyglanced
joined togetherjoined

Tip #3: convert phrases to single words

Sometimes we use short phrases when we could use just one or two words. Here are some examples

OriginalReplacement
a period of one weekone week
oval in shapeoval
larger in sizelarger
shorter in durationshorter
ATM machineATM
for all intents and purposesbecause
due to the fact thatbecause
given thatbecause
in the event thatif
at the present timenow
it is necessary thatmust
cannot be avoidedmust

Tip #4: replace descriptive phrases with one-word adjectives

Sometimes we use long, descriptive phrases that we can replace with one-word or compound adjectives. 

Here’s a sentence that contains two descriptive phrases:

The Government prioritises projects that are designed to reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries on the roads over those that are designed to reduce the environmental impact of transport.

Change the descriptive phrase: ‘that are designed to reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries on the roads’ to the compound adjective ‘road-safety’. Change the descriptive phrase ‘that are designed to reduce the environmental impact of transport’ to the adjective ‘environmental’.

These two changes create a short, clear sentence:

The Government prioritises road-safety projects over environmental projects.

Tip #5: remove ‘there is’ or ‘there are’

Look for sentences that start with ‘there is’ or ‘there are’, as sometimes you can remove these clauses without affecting the meaning of your sentence.  

For example, change this sentence:

There is a project underway to assess if our classroom sizes are too big

to:

A project is underway to assess if our classroom sizes are too big.


Tip #6: remove prepositional phrases

Prepositional phrases are phrases that begin with words like ‘in’, ‘for’, ‘at’, ‘on’, ‘through’, ‘over’, ‘about’, ‘after’, ‘before’, ‘behind’, ‘by’, ‘during’, ‘from’, ‘of’, ‘past’, ‘to’, ‘under’, ‘up’ and ‘with’.  

Prepositional phrases can make your sentences unwieldy and unclear. Do you use a lot of prepositional phrases? Look at your writing and see which ones you can remove.

This sentence contains seven prepositional phrases that can all be removed:

The reason for the failure of the project of the city council in the last financial year was that several of the councilors were frequently unable to reach agreement on the allocation of the budget.

Here’s a short, clear sentence without the prepositional phrases (and after some other good editing!)

The city council’s project failed last financial year, because some councilors couldn’t agree the budget.

Here are some more examples. Do you use any of these phrases in your writing?

Original sentenceSuccinct sentence
The Board needs to take the results into consideration.The Board needs to consider the results.
The team must give a presentation on its work programme to the new CEO.The team must present its work programme to the new CEO.
The CEO needs to make a decision about which candidate to appoint to the HR Director role.The CEO needs to decide who to appoint to the HR Director role.
The Government has announced it will conduct a review of how the agency handled the problem.The Government has announced it will review how the agency handled the problem.
The team needs to come to a decision on who will work over Christmas.The team needs to decide who will work over Christmas.

I work with government agencies, non-profit organisations and international development agencies that want high-quality documents. Get in touch to find out how I can help your organisation achieve its goals. And look out for more of my tips on how to write succinctly.