One of the best ways to make your writing stronger is to cut unnecessary words. Many people tend to over-write, often in a similar way to how they would speak. Words creep in that add no meaning and can make a piece of writing sound vague and woolly rather than confidence and precise.
This is one of the worst offenders for me. I over-use it in email, typing:
- “I just thought I’d drop you a note…”
- “Just writing to ask…”
- “If you could just give me a call…”
In almost every case, striking out the word “just” will make a sentence stronger. It tends to make you sound either desperate when applied to yourself (“I just wondered if you could…”) or demanding when applied to the other person (“If you would just…”).
Like “just”, this is another word which can frequently be cut. It’s often found partnering “just”, in which case you might want to rewrite the whole sentence.
- “You can really improve by…”
- “You don’t really want to…”
- “I’m really just trying to …”
Using the word “really” about yourself makes it sounds as though you believe the other person is unsure of your intentions; “I’m really writing the report” can sound defensive. And using it about someone else can sound patronising – phrases like “that’s really good!” are best kept for the kindergarten.
This insidious word tends to water down the meaning of a sentence or, worse, make it unclear. It usually means “a bit” as in “I quite liked it”, but can also mean “completely” as in “Quite right.” Most people have little difficulty understanding those, but sentences like “I was quite outraged” can be taken either way.
- “I’d quite like you to …”
- “I’m feeling quite upset about it.”
- “I don’t think you quite understand…”
There are some circumstances where you may well want to keep the word “quite”, particularly when trying to justify something over-running. “Quite” is useful in suggesting both “almost there” and “soon”, and saying “The files aren’t quite ready yet …” implies it won’t be much longer, whereas “The files aren’t ready yet” can sound like stone-walling.
Like many of the words above, “perhaps” makes your writing sound uncertain. It can obscure meaning, or weaken an otherwise powerful statement, and often causes confusion.
- “Perhaps we could meet at twelve for lunch.”
- “And then perhaps you’d like to …”
- “Perhaps if I …”
The main problem in all these cases is that the word “perhaps” means your intention is unclear. If you email someone suggesting “Perhaps we could meet at twelve for lunch”, are you proposing a lunch meeting, or just idly wondering whether it’s possible? The “perhaps” also makes it unclear what part of the suggestion is in doubt; do you think twelve might not be the best time, or do you suspect the other person won’t want to get lunch?
This is another word which creeps into my writing where it’s not needed. It’s fine when necessary, but can often be cut without any loss of meaning – usually when it’s preceded by a noun.
- “This is the house that Jack built.”
- “Can you remember the time that we asked people to arrive?”
- “I liked the design that you came up with.”
Make sure you don’t cut valid instances of the word, usually where “that” comes before the noun. “I need that document by five” makes sense, “I need document by five” is only safe in a very informal context and if you’re sure the other person knows which document you mean.
Putting it all together
If you email someone with —
“I really just wondered if perhaps you could send those documents that I mentioned quite soon.”
— you come across as diffident, uncertain and sound like you’re babbling. It’s also unclear whether you do need those documents straight away, or whether you’re simply enquiring whether they could be sent soon.
But if you delete the five unnecessary words, you’ll get —
really just wondered if perhaps you could send those documents that I mentioned quite soon.”
“I wondered if you could send those documents I mentioned soon.”
This sentence is much clearer, more concise, and likely to elicit a quick response.
So when you’ve written an email, article, report or even a piece of fiction, check through for the words just, really, quite, perhaps and that – and see if you can improve the piece by cutting them out.