SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about replacing weak words with strong words to create powerful writing
One of my favorite books on writing is Stunk and White’s The Elements of Style. I own several copies of this little book, and I read it at least twice a year. One of the edicts in the book is “Omit needless words.” That is great advice, unless of course you happen to be writing for some how-to website that pays by the word. But interestingly enough, those sorts of sites (that I have nearly completely quit reading because the writing is so poor) stand in great contrast to those who groom their writing liking an anal-retentive gardener removing weeds.
When doing a re-write (or a self edit or a second draft or whatever you want to call the process) the words you want to omit, the ones that are needless, are the ones that are weak. So, what, you may ask, is a weak word? Well, I am glad you asked. A weak word is one that does not contribute any useful information. A weak word is a word that I can delete and whose presence will not be missed. If anything, the sentence will actually be stronger, clearer, and convey a higher message load. In other words, the weak word fails the “So what” test.
Here is an example of a sentence laden with weak words: It was a very hot August afternoon in Charlotte, North Carolina and I was sitting on my front porch watching a few small birds hopping around in my front yard looking for little insects upon which to feast. I looked up from watching the avian, and saw a group of beautiful young women walking down the road that passes my property wearing shoe string bikinis.
Ok, so maybe I over did it. So now lets begin at the top, and see what can be safely omitted:
- Very hot – does not tell how hot, does not convey any useful information. As a matter of a fact, it is ALWAYS hot in Charlotte in August. There is actually information in my sample that actually tells how hot, but it is burried:
- It was so hot that the birds refused to fly
- it was so hot that the neighbors shed their clothes and walked around in bikinis.
- Few small birds – several problems here. How many birds, few does not tell me. Small birds – basically most birds are small. Are they common birds? Exotic birds?
- A dozen cardinals searched in vain for food on the dusty lawn
- Two blue jays teamed up with a crow to scare up some insects for lunch
- Front lawn – obviously because I am sitting on my front porch. Omit completely. or just say lawn
- little insects – thankfully all insects are little. Maybe change to something else:
- juicy insects
- crunchy insects
- plump earth worms
- from watching the avian – can delete completely. Does not add value
- a group – how many were there. group does not tell me anything
- beautiful – does not say anything. Describe
- young – is relative to the age of the reader / writer. Does not say anything. I’ve been called a young man by a 90 year old man before, and it does not change the face I see in the mirror each morning. How young are they? What makes them young? How can I tell from across the yard that they are young? Hair style, color and shape of the bikini? Provide details
- Walking down the road – this is weak. Did they strut, parade, saunter, slink, ooze, slither, gallop, trot or what? Maybe they glided across the road as if they were walking the runway at the Paris Fashion Show … Or maybe they floated across my periphery as a vision of goddesses, and I blinked and they were gone.
Anyway, how I handle weak words greatly impacts the power of my writing. This is true whether I am writing fiction, or non-fiction. There is no substitute for robust, powerful writing when I want to convey an idea. The only thing is, I must know what I am trying to convey.