Wednesday, July 29, 2009

There Are Times When "Omit Needless Words" Doesn't Work

William Strunk's omit needless words technique is one of the best ways to tighten up and clarify your writing. However, there are instances where it fails as a writing strategy.

First, some authors write in beautiful, expansive prose. Rest assured, no one would read Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather or Jane Austen if they had omitted all needless words from their novels.

Second, excessive use of this technique may bias your word choice towards overly complex, SAT exam-style words. While this can cause your writing to sound more authoritative (especially if you're writing a PhD thesis), there are certain writing tasks where this type of word choice may compromise your credibility with your audience.

The expression "omit needless words" itself gives us a perfect example. If you were writing an essay on pop culture, directed at a young audience, would you want to say something like "omit needless words"? Does anybody under the age of thirty even use the word "omit"?

There are times when writing can get too tight.
PS: Here is To The Lighthouse as written by Strunk:

"Let's go to the lighthouse."
"Let's have a dinner party and serve Boeuf en Daube."
[Ten years pass.]
"Let's go to the lighthouse."
"I've finished my painting."
The End.