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Getting ruthless with unnecessary words

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Accessibility, Content design, Experts in what we do,

Copy editing

One of the hardest things to do as a writer is to cut words. They’re carefully crafted words and sentences. You’ve included them for a reason. They’re there for effect, impact, explanation, to create clever metaphors or similes.

Every word has its place in your writing and anyone who says otherwise is wrong. They didn’t go through the process. They don’t understand the topic like you do. They haven’t spent hours and hours getting it perfect. The problem is, we live in a world where words on a screen need to be easily skimmed. Where reading content is fast-paced and fluid.

Parliament needs to adapt to this as we need to be useful and accessible to all audiences. We’re a public service, we have a responsibility to be open and to help people understand what’s going on in their democracy.

We need to engage, inspire, have conversations, share our work, help people understand it, make our work easy to read and be absorbed by everyone. Even journalists and lobbyists will appreciate easy to skim, straightforward language. They need to know the information, not appreciate our literary craftsmanship.

Getting to the point

There are lots of ways we can do this. Plain English is one example. Another is to get ruthless in our editing. Is that word needed? Can the filler words be removed? Can your words be more direct and active?

Do we need to repeat words like ‘government’ or ‘committee’ in the same sentence or can we swap them for more inclusive ‘we’ and ‘they’ pronouns? Can there be one word instead of three?

Something I see a lot across our website is the use of unnecessary words to describe something. For example:

Select from a range of search options to find out more about staff members and their contact details

Why do users need to know about the search options from teaser text? Is this important? Why are people visiting this page? Being more direct and active, as well as adding some specifics can get the same message across:

Search staff members for their biographies, activities and contact details

This has cut away nine words and gives you more information about what’s on the next page.

Cut, tweak, re-order

It’s not always as easy as taking out words, you may have to rejig the sentence a bit or add a word or two. But stripping away the unnecessary ones really helps to make the copy more concise and easier to read. It also helps to shorten the length of sentences. For example:

About Prime Minister’s Question Time

Question Time in the House of Commons is an opportunity for MPs to question government ministers about matters for which they are responsible. Prime Minister’s Question Time, also referred to as PMQs, takes place every Wednesday that the House of Commons is sitting and gives MPs the chance to put questions to the Prime Minister.

Do we need to reference the House of Commons twice? What additional information or benefit does that give? I would argue the second sentence should be moved to the beginning as the main event is MPs questioning the Prime Minister. This copy could become:

About Prime Minister’s question time (PMQs)

Every sitting Wednesday MPs have the chance to question the Prime Minister in the House of Commons. MPs can also question government ministers about specific matters during Question Time without the PM, which runs Monday to Thursday.

By giving the acronym in the heading we’ve removed eight non-essential words. Filler words like ‘opportunity to’, ‘takes place’, ‘to put’ are also unnecessary for conveying the information and adds more words to the paragraph.

Edit, edit, and edit some more

Editing is a hard task. It’s even harder to do on your own work. It’s easy to get attached to a phrase or to keep the sentence structure the same because that’s how you wrote it in the first draft. But it’s so important to get ruthless, to shake things up a bit.

Across Parliament, there’s lots we can do to start trimming the fat from our copy. Shortening sentences, being more direct, removing passive sentences and taking out multiple references to business areas. For example, is including various mentions of the Houses a user need or a business one?

Engage, connect, inspire

Cutting words is a skill and it’s easier if someone else can help. Peer review or pair writing can really help with the process. Removing the unnecessary words is so worthwhile for readability. It can make a big difference in how we communicate and engage with all our audiences.

So I'm setting a challenge. What unnecessary words can you cut from this blog post?

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  1. Comment by Steve Bromley posted on

    I recognise that stock image, and its many unnecessary words... 😉

  2. Comment by Louise Duffy posted on

    We're all guilty of this especially me!

  3. Comment by Martyn Atkins posted on

    It is always a delight to work with a skilled and effective editor.

    The best ones realise that they are not the practitioners, and thus allow the writers the final word.

    Parliament's website has to be accessible and informative - but it also has to provide information which is clear, accurate and unambiguous. Sometimes this requires word choices which would dismay the Web editor and upset the SEO specialist.