Cut Empty Phrases

Readers don’t want filler.IMG_7501 2to3

by Andy Scheer


“Vigorous writing is concise,” says William Strunk Jr. in his classic book The Elements of Style. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

I’ve put that principle in practice as I’ve edited an 87,000-word nonfiction manuscript the author plans to self-publish. At 120 pages into the 270-page document, I’ve cut nearly 3,000 words. This puts me on pace to cut 6,900 words from the entire manuscript. That’s just under eight percent.

I’m not doing an aggressive edit. I’m mostly trimming the fat and filler—words that occupy space, but add nothing to the meaning. (Think of how, a few decades back when the price of beef soared, grocery stores added soy to their cheaper grade of hamburger. It added bulk, but did nothing to enhance the flavor.)

As I’ve edited, I’ve saved some examples of the fluff I’ve cut. Here are a few of the empty phrases, in the order they appeared in the manuscript.

Plan of action—What other kind is there? Just say “plan.”
Even though—Do you really need to start a sentence with double introductory prepositions? It’s usually enough just to say “though.”
To be a blessing to—Does this “Christianese” phrase mean more than “to bless”?
In order to—Usually out of order. Replace with “to.”
Pose a threat to—Bulky and passive. Replace with “threaten.”
One particular time—Unless you’re writing the start of a contemporary academic fairy tale, “once” is enough.

And a few longer examples, before and after:

Before: There are some still, it seems, who take the opposite extreme.
After: Some take the opposite extreme.

Before: But there are other times when
After: Other times,

We all let such phrases creep into our writing. As a novelist, you’ll want to use them—if a character is an academic, attorney, or politician. Instant characterization.

Otherwise, who wants verbal textured soy protein?

About Andy Scheer

With more than 30 years in publishing, Andy Scheer has provided freelance editorial services since 2010. He has edited fiction and nonfiction for publishers including Moody, WinePress, and BelieversPress, as well as for clients including Dirk Cussler, McNair Wilson, DiAnn Mills, Heather Day Gilbert, and Sammy Tippit.
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