What exactly are “unnecessary” words?

Never hire a Dalek to edit your manuscript. They don't understand nuance.

Never hire a Dalek to edit your manuscript. They don’t understand nuance.

One of the problems with writing rules is that writing deals in words, and we, as writers and readers, experience words differently.

The term “rule” implies (to me) a black-or-white statement with no nuance. Do not drink bleach is a pretty good rule. Get rid of words that do not add meaning, however, is more complicated. Applying that rule without nuance may not leave you with the best-possible finished work.

Look at my post title as an example. On a mechanical level, the word “exactly” is unnecessary. Without it, “What are unnecessary words?” is still an easy-to-understand construction. But on a subtextural level, is does not at all mean the same thing as “What exactly are unnecessary words?” The addition of that single word says, Eric is skeptical about something, and this post is going to challenge the status quo. Not bad for one of those crappy old adverbs everyone hates.

If writing served the solitary, utilitarian purpose of conveying information, banishing words that do not add literal meaning would be a sound objective. But writing isn’t solely function; it’s also art. Art has style, rhythm, form, and flow. In the previous paragraph I wrote that “What are unnecessary words” does not at all mean the same thing as “What exactly are unnecessary words?” At all does not add surface-level meaning. A robot would not glean additional information from it.

However, I’m not writing for robots, I’m writing for humans. I added at all because I like the rhythm of the sentence that way, and I like how it flows with the rhythm of the sentences before and after. You may look at that sentence and say, “I would not have written it that way,” which is fine, but, see, it’s my sentence. Write your own blog post. Damn it.

Danger, Will Robinson. You are forgetting why you started writing in the first place.

Danger, Will Robinson. You are forgetting why you started writing in the first place.

If you have taken a writing course or read books on said subject, you’ve likely been presented with an essay showing the power of lean, simple, crisp writing from which all unnecessary words have been excised. No doubt the essay was at once like a cool breeze blowing off the ocean and a bright blue sky with life-renewing sunlight washing over your body. You were suitably impressed by the writer’s (and editor’s) expertise.

Of course, those essays are great lessons for the rest of us. Learn how to be a lean, mean writing machine! But what if you are going for gothic dread or satire or noir? Sometimes you need those “unnecessary” words to lend weight or make people laugh or perfect the timing associated with stylized storytelling.

I do not suggest that when writing teachers talk about “words that do not add meaning” they lack the insights presented in this post. I do think, however, that the nuance of this message gets lost by the time it filters out to inexperienced writers and novices, leading some of them to obsess over rules and, in the process, lose the unique character of their writing.

Most times, extraneous words are exactly that: Clutter that must be cut away to reveal your voice and bring your story to life.

Sometimes, though, a word that adds no meaning can change everything.


37 responses to “What exactly are “unnecessary” words?

  • Kate Crimmins

    I agree. Left to my own devices, I add adverbs all over the place. Afterward I go through and eliminate most. Once in a while you need the “tone” that is set by the extra word. Sometimes I struggle with it but like you said, it’s my blog and whatever I want goes!

    • ericjbaker

      Having a second set of professional eyes asses one’s work is great for eliminating truly unnecessary words, but, in accordance with my recurring theme here, writing rules are not as black and white as they appear on the surface.

  • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    1) I have become adept at making titles exactly six words long, because I read somewhere that people notice the first and the last three words. You have one more, if you wish. I think this has improved my blog post titles – I work at them a little longer, work the nuances. Has it resulted in more readers? Probably not. I don’t care. It’s good for me.

    2) Deciding what is unnecessary for you is how you come up with your style – and I think that’s why people will read you, and not some robot. I also think traditional publishing may not be the best place for writers to demonstrate their style, so I will be publishing myself.

    I do the same thing – checking sentence length, making things pithier and then deciding if they’re actually better, picking a word/phrase/adverb for the nuances. It IS important.

    It’s our JOB.

    As is continuing to return to basics on a regular basis – in case we missed something. I still skim columns like this one – hey, I’m not perfect.

    Good post.


    • ericjbaker

      Thanks. It sounds like you know what you want out of your writing and why. As Obi Wan Kenobi said in Star Wars, “I’ll have the full rack of ribs, the fried potatoes, and the cole slaw.” No wait. That was me at the BBQ joint. Obi Wan said, “Trust your feelings!”

  • Curlydaz

    Unnecessary words are as big a problem for me as overused words. I struggle finding them but when I do and delete, it is like plucking a splinter out from my nail bed.

    • ericjbaker

      Working as an editor has helped me tremendously in my own writing. I still need an editor and always will, but I have become much leaner in my prose over time. It helps me see my own mistakes after editing others’ work. Try it!

  • Yolanda M.

    Great post Eric 🙂 ‘writing isn’t only function it is also art’ love that! Lean and crisp writing doesn’t always work and some of my favourite novels are made wondrous by a liberal usage of adverbs.

    • ericjbaker

      I realize that 19th century writing is not 20th century writing, but a lot of the subtle humor in Dickens derives from his wry observations that neither advance the story or set an example for brevity. Same for Poe and Twain and plenty of other “dated” writers we are still talking about and teaching today.

  • Jill Weatherholt

    Deleting words is the best…so is Lost in Space! I loved that show.

    • ericjbaker

      I love how they got lost on the way to Jupiter and ended up in another solar system. That’s like getting lost on the way to your mailbox and finding yourself in Thailand. Ah, old Sci-fi. I’ll never not love everything about it.

  • nrhatch

    Agreed. If I read “it” out loud and like how “it” sounds I leave “it” in.

    That said, I avoid writers who are long worded (and speakers who are long winded). If someone takes too long to get to the point, I head for the exit sign.

  • change it up editing

    I think you hit the nail on the head, Eric, with your differentiation between mechanical and subtextual; just because a word works doesn’t mean it is necessary or even the correct word. As an editor I find that the more skilled the writer, the more artistic and the less mechanical the writing tends to be. That is one of my considerations when suggesting the deletion of a word or phrase—when everything other sentence contains “very,” I use a much heavier hand than if the writer only uses that adverb sparingly. In the latter case, I will only suggest the writer delete it if it is simply a placeholder and truly “unnecessary” to the rhythm of the writing. As you so eloquently put it, “Sometimes, though, a word that adds no meaning can change everything.”

    • ericjbaker

      “Very,” to me, is one of those invisible words for a lot of writers. I have that problem with “just.” My first pass on an essay or blog post will produce at least three or four recurrences. I’m getting better at sniping them as I go, though.

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

        Just! Just! Just!

        Thank God for my subscription to AutoCrit. It has a number of things classified as ‘generic’ writing, and it took me a while to figure out that ‘just’ and ‘very’ and ‘really’ were what they meant (their list isn’t visible) – things that are then left marked for you to decide if you want to keep them.

        In dialogue, ‘you know’ is both a spacer and a way of characterizing the speaker. ‘Just’ is how I nuance things, but even knowing that doesn’t always get me to justify the ‘justs.’

        Use anything you please – just be aware you are doing it and do it intentionally. Substituting ‘But’ gets me in another AutoCrit category – using beginning prepositions and conjunctions or some such. Or ‘even’ or ‘only.’

        Sigh. You can’t help how you speak (unless you pay a lot of attention), but you CAN help how you write.

        Unless very pressed for time, ‘run it through AC’ is a step I can’t afford to miss. My brain is lazy.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    I’m all about nuance and subtle differences in meaning, and also the rhythm of words and sentences. I’ll put in as many words as I feel it takes to create the meaning and cadence I’m after in the moment. After the fact, rereading and also reading out loud helps me decide what is absolutely necessary.

  • jhmae

    I hear this a lot in crits on Scribophile. I actually had an otherwise helpful critiquer mark out a bunch of phrases and whole sentences, with the comment “unnecessary.” What I wanted to say was “how do you know?” I know what I’m trying to say, not you. I think people expound that “rule” because they heard it somewhere else and they are just vomiting it up all over other writers.

  • haydendlinder

    I think anything you get from anyone, instructor or not, has to be taken with a grain of salt. We so easily go from guideline to RULE in our minds.

    • ericjbaker

      Excellent. You just summed up the recurring theme of this blog, as least when I’m sticking to the intended subject and not rambling off course with werewolf movies and guitars and whatever else distracts me. 😉

  • 1WriteWay

    Great post, Eric! One of my favorite essayists is Lewis Lapham, formerly of Harper’s magazine. Some accuse him of being “wordy,” but there’s an elegance in his long, thoughtful sentences that would be lost if “unnecessary” words were cut.

    • ericjbaker

      Yes; I wonder why people are always trying to put other people into the same box. Isn’t variety better?

      Writing teachers should teach students how to be leaner writers, but not as an end in itself.

  • Arkenaten

    While swigging from the editorial salt seller I believe there is merit in everything.
    One of the plus factors of trying to rid every manuscript of unnecessary words is the discovery of how often I overuse words, and small, seemingly innocuous couplings or phrases, unnecessary or otherwise.
    I shall not identify my literary idiosyncrasies as once pointed out the reader cannot help but have them leap off the page.
    Most times, I would venture that the average writer is unaware they are even there ( see ? ‘ even’ – unnecessary word! ;)) but they creep in. Oh yes indeed they do, usually they are a reflection of my own (sometimes limited) vocabulary and speech patterns.
    And the average reader is unlikely aware of such patterns also, but maybe this contributes to the lack of enjoyment of a book?

    Want to try an experiment?

    Think of a word/s that you might use on a regular basis.
    For example, And then or once.

    Type them into the ‘Find’ bar in Word and see how many times they appear in an eighty thousand word manuscript!

    Freaked me out!

    Great post once again. Cracking photo of the Daleks. Perfect as a header for the post.

    • ericjbaker

      Any excuse for a Doctor Who header, I’ll take it.

      Believe me, as a professional editor, I have backspaced over enough words to full a set of gibberish encyclopedias. I also think, though, that the free advice industry (?) lacks nuance in the application of its editing principles. I used to get frustrated with all the “don’t do this” directives flying at me, and I know other writers still do. From my observation, the people who are successful (define that on your own terms) trust their instincts. And model themselves after other people who are successful.

  • livelytwist

    I struggle sometimes with ‘unnecessary’ words. Then I snip, cut, slice, dice, and don’t recognize what I wrote- I miss the salt and pepper.

    As you can tell from this comment, I like unnecessary words XD

  • Richard Leonard

    Whenever I read something like this from you it awakens something in my head that says ,”I’ve been taught the contrary, but I know this to be true.” I agree totally. Sometimes, unnecessary or redundant words really do have a place.

  • Eric Tonningsen

    Rule #1: Be a non-conformist. Rule #2: Rules suck. Yes, this is your post but my comment. 🙂 I like a little substance, be it an unnecessary adverb or a juicy tidbit that amplifies. I also like (and try to avoid) the extraneous.

    As with music, food, art and sex, I know what I like. And that is my prerogative. You make good, clear points, maestro.

    • ericjbaker

      As a writer and deliverer of speeches, I would think you have a better sense than most when an “unnecessary” word is necessary. We fiction writers are always advising each other to read our stories aloud. You’re probably saying to yourself, “Ya think?”

      Thanks for the insights as usual, Eric.

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  • L. Marie

    Gotta love the Daleks!
    It’s funny how adverbs get a bad rap, though many award-winning writers use them quite a bit. I’m thinking of Terry Pratchett in particular. I use them if a passage is more satisfying with them than without them.

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