Better writer tip #3: Get rid of empty words: express your ideas clearly and effectively

Posted by Oliver Hogue on 05/07/2014

Your readers' time is valuable. Don't make them read more words than is necessary.

Back at University I had a friend who would add and change the size of words in sentences because he thought it made his ideas sound more impressive, and him, therefore, more intelligent.

He also felt this was an easier way for meeting the word count. Now, it might be hard to argue against his second point. However, he certainly failed in his quest to sound more intelligent just because he used a thesaurus. Note: Readers soon switch off when overly complicated words are used unnecessarily to communicate ideas.

Empty words are common in academic writing because people have seen them before in other writing, or like my University mate, they believe use of clever sounding or extra words is necessary to sound intellectual. But it actually has the opposite effect. The common term for what my University mate was doing is ‘padding’.

Consider these phrases:

  • All things considered
  • In a manner of speaking
  • For all intents and purposes
  • On the grounds that
  • Owing to the fact that
  • In view of the fact that.

Do any of these phrases add value to ideas or writing, or, more importantly improve the readability of the document? While we might use these phrases when we speak – to create a little extra time to think – they are not useful in our writing. So, the answer is no, these phrases do not add value or improve readability.  Remember: your readers' time is valuable. Don't make them read more words than necessary.

Here’s another example:

Persons age 5 to 14 years are perennially more likely to have acute HAV than those older than 15 or less than 4 years of age.

OR

Acute HAV infection is most common in children between 5 and 14 years of age.

(The second set of numbers in the sentence is redundant. The sentence can also be stated more briefly with a better choice of subject).

 

Padding may be helpful when you are packing a box to protect items, but it is not helpful when you are trying to express your ideas clearly and effectively. These words are just filler and do nothing to benefit the reader.

More examples:

Example 1:

Padded: Working in the field of engineering is rewarding.

Or

Better: Working in engineering is rewarding.

Example 2:

Padded: Concrete cancer is a difficult kind of problem to treat.

Or

Better: Concrete cancer is a difficult problem to treat.

Example 3:

Padded: For all intents and purposes we have made the decision to close the company.

Or

Better: We have decided to close.

In summary:

Padding sentences with extra (empty) words is not helpful if you are trying to express your ideas clearly and effectively

‘Clever-sounding’ or extra words do not make your ideas or your writing appear more intellectual, nor to they benefit the reader.

Keep a list of the empty words you find yourself using, and when you edit, use the ‘find’ command to look for similar instances in your writing.

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