Wordy, dense construction is one of the biggest problems in government writing. Nothing is more confusing to the user than long, complex sentences containing multiple phrases and clauses. Unnecessary words come in all shapes and sizes, and it’s difficult to put them into distinct categories. To address the problem, become more critical of your own writing, and consider whether you need every word. Challenge every word—do you need it?
Pronouns, active voice, and base verbs help eliminate excess words. So does eliminating unnecessary modifiers—in “HUD and FAA issued a joint report” you don’t need “joint.” In “this information is really critical” you don’t need “really.”
Unnecessary words waste your audience’s time. Great writing is like a conversation. Omit information that the audience doesn’t need to know. This can be difficult as a subject matter expert so it’s important to have someone look at the information from the audience’s perspective.
Check your prepositions
Watch out for “of,” “to,” “on,” and other prepositions. They often mark phases you can reduce to one or two words.
|a number of||several, a few, or many|
|a sufficient number of||enough|
|at this point in time||now|
|is able to||can|
|on a monthly basis||monthly|
|on the ground that||because|
|an amount of X||X|
|be responsible for||must|
|in order to||to|
Omit redundant words
|The X Department and the Y Department worked together on a joint project to improve…||The X and Y Departments worked on a project to improve…|
In this statement, you don’t need “joint.” You don’t even need “together.” Saying that X and Y worked on a project says it all. “Joint” and “together” are redundant.
Cut excess modifiers
We often use modifiers like absolutely, actually, completely, really, quite, totally, and very. But if you look closely, you’ll find that they’re probably not necessary and may even be nonsensical.
|Their claim was totally unrealistic.||Their claim was absurd.|
|It is particularly difficult to reconcile the somewhat differing views expressed by the management team.||It is difficult to reconcile the differing views expressed by the management team.|
|Total disclosure of all facts is very important to make sure we draw up a total and completely accurate picture of the Agency’s financial position.||Disclosing all facts is important to creating an accurate picture of the Agency’s financial position.|
Avoid doublets and triplets
English writers love to repeat the same concept by using different words that say the same thing.
|due and payable||due|
|cease and desist||stop|
|knowledge and information||(either one)|
|begin and commence||start|
Other ways to omit unnecessary words include eliminating hidden verbs, using pronouns, and avoiding the passive voice. For more information, see:
This example uses several of the techniques discussed above to cut a 54 word sentence down to 22 words, with no loss of meaning.
|If the State Secretary finds that an individual has received a payment to which the individual was not entitled, whether or not the payment was due to the individual’s fault or misrepresentation, the individual shall be liable to repay to State the total sum of the payment to which the individual was not entitled.||If the State agency finds that you received a payment that you weren’t entitled to, you must pay the entire sum back.|
Omitting excess words can cut documents significantly. Be diligent in challenging every word you write, and eventually you will learn to write not only clearly, but concisely.
- Garner, Bryan A., Legal Writing in Plain English, 2001, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 43, 40, 34.
- Kimble, Joseph, Lifting the Fog of Legalese, 2006, Carolina Academic Press Durham, NC, pp. 93, 170.
- Securities and Exchange Commission, Plain English Handbook, 1998, Washington, DC, p. 25.