declutter your writing

I’ve been tracking the feedback I give to my students as they write their manuscripts for a class research project. The most common feedback is, to quote Strunk and White, “omit needless words.”

Early drafts are filled with words that don’t do any work. Simply removing unnecessary words will sharpen your ideas and make your writing voice sound more confident.

However, merely saying “omit needless words” is vague. It’s only slightly better than saying, “to write better you need to write better.” Thanks for the advice. How, exactly, is one supposed to omit needless words?

Here are seven concrete ways to prune your writing. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’ll get you started.

  1. Choose tighter phrasing.
    • Replace furthermore with further*
    • Replace in order to with to
    • Replace whether or not with whether
    • Replace due to the fact that with because
    • Etc.
  2. Remove extra “that”s.
    • Participants were told that they would compete against another participant in a multi-round reaction time game.
  3. Remove implied words.
    • Participants were in the process of completing their essays when they were interrupted by the researcher.
  4. Make things plural.
    • “The participant was then given a survey…” becomes “Participants were then given a survey…”
  5. Turn prepositional phrases into adjectives.
    • “Behaviors that are aggressive” becomes “Aggressive behaviors”
  6. Use adjectives sparingly. If you must use adjectives, choose one wisely—two adjectives are one too many.
    • “The behavior was harsh and harmful” becomes “The behavior was severe”
  7. Intensifiers like “very” or “extremely” can generally be omitted. If the intensifier conveys important information, consider finding a more apt verb or noun that can capture the information in a single word.
    • “The stimuli were presented very quickly” becomes “The stimuli were presented rapidly…”

The real power of these rules is when you apply several of them together. Let’s consider an example paragraph to show how it works. Here’s a paragraph I made up:

“In order to identify responses that were extreme and possibly erroneous, we applied our exclusion criterion that we preregistered. A participant who provided an estimate that was more than five standard deviations from the mean was deemed an outlier. This resulted in the exclusion of 17 participants. Participants in the high anchoring condition estimated that the height of the Empire State Building was much taller than those who were in the low anchoring condition.”

This paragraph is typical of an early draft—it’s grammatically correct but bogged down with extra words. Grab a knife and trim some fat.

In order To identify responses that were extreme and possibly erroneous invalid responding, we applied our preregistered exclusion criterion that we preregistered. A participant Participants who provided an estimate that was more than five standard deviations from the mean was were deemed an outliers [making this plural also makes it clearer that the 5 SD is your exclusion rule and not merely describing one person who was excluded]. This resulted in the exclusion of 17 participants. Participants in the high anchoring condition estimated that the height of [implied by “taller”] the Empire State Building was much taller than those who were in the low anchoring condition.”

Here it is without the strikethrough text and commentary.

“To identify invalid responding, we applied our preregistered exclusion criterion. Participants who provided an estimate more than five standard deviations from the mean were deemed outliers. This resulted in the exclusion of 17 participants. Participants in the high anchoring condition estimated that the Empire State Building was taller than those in the low anchoring condition.”

The revised paragraph is not perfect. I would still do quite a bit of wordsmithing before I was satisfied. But the simple act of removing a few words made it much better.

*This, of course, does not omit a word. But it saves the reader a syllable. Extra syllables add up.

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