“I live in the city of Phoenix, in the state of Arizona. I do my best work between the hours of 2pm and 4pm in the afternoon, for the simple reason that those are the hours I feel clearest and most awake. So I try to ignore interruptions during that period of time, in order to focus on work.”
Notice anything awful about that first paragraph? (And not that I have a boring life. That’s true, but not the point here.)
How many useless phrases did you catch in those first three sentences? Take another look, and lask yourself what phrases could be removed to make the paragraph more clear.
How about the following?
- The city of
- The state of
- The hours of
- In the afternoon
- For the simple reason that
- Period of time
- In order to
Want to write a terrible office document or work email? Stuff it with official-sounding but unnecessary phrases like these.
There are times when some of these phrases are useful. “He works for the city of New Orleans” might be a perfectly legitimate statement to indicate that the person works for the city’s government. But how about, “I live in the city of New Orleans” instead? If you remove “the city of” and just write, “I live in New Orleans,” would your reader be confused? Would he or she think New Orleans is the name of your house?
You’ve probably seen wasted phrases like these many times in the documents and emails you read at work. Here are a few more of my personal favorites.
- “In the month of .” Hmm. I’ll bet $10 that the next word here is going be one of the months.
- “Due to the fact that.” I’ll trade you for a shorter “because”—and you can keep the change.
- “By virtue of.“ Hey, I’ve got another “because” handy.
- “Conduct a review.“ Do yourself a favor and just “review”—you’ll be done sooner.
- “A difficult dilemma.” As opposed to…an easy dilemma?
One of the reasons so many professionals write in this repetitive, bloated style is that they think their writing comes across as more professional this way, and so will be taken more seriously. “Between the hours of 2pm and 4pm in the afternoon.” Ooh, so formal, so impressive, yes?
No. What comes across, instead of professionalism, is that the person writing doesn’t trust the reader to understand that the period between “2pm and 4pm” is measured in hours, and not, say, inches or pesos. It also suggests the reader is too stupid to catch the writer’s clever code “pm” and needs to be told that these times are “in the afternoon.”
Not everyone is intentionally bulking up their professional writing with formal words however – some write this way because they were trained to in secondary and even higher education. Page length and word count mattered in high school and college; in fact, our teachers often rewarded us for the physical heft of our documents. Did you ever finish writing a paper for school and, if it didn’t hit the minimum page length, try to fatten it up by stuffing an extra “that” everywhere you could? We all did that, right? (Or did I just make a really embarrassing confession?)
The point is this: unless your supervisor actually asks you to hit a minimum word count in your work-related documents, cut ruthlessly when you edit.
Relevant confession: in my first draft of that sentence above, I wrote, “cut ruthlessly during the editing process.” Is “editing process” clearer than “edit”?
Another relevant confession: earlier in this article, where I wrote “documents,” in my first draft I actually wrote “written documents.” As opposed to what? “Finger-painted” documents? Cut. Be ruthless. Look for words that don’t make sense or repeat information that you already gave.
I leave you with these words of advice: nothing shows the seriousness and professionalism of your documents more powerfully than when you write them clearly, to the point, and without one unnecessary phrase.
Don’t waste words.