Improve Writing by Pruning Dead Wood

by Jeff Cowart

One of the most common problems in writing, or speaking, is the addition of unnecessary words to a primary thought. Think of the overall narrative as a well-rooted tree trunk with strong branches and offshoots shaping the essence of the tree. Sometimes we need to prune unruly sprouts to keep the tree healthy and balanced.

The same is true with writing. Some of the most common unruly sprouts involve adding buzzwords or learned phrases that we believe align our writing to the corporate way or to a higher level of formality or intellectual appearance. But, instead, those additions make the writing less accessible and readable.

For example, let’s look at the following sentence that we could easily envision in a corporate memo or letter: In order to ensure compliance with the directive, I can assure you that we have taken the necessary steps to achieve the goal.

The essence of the sentence is found once we apply the pruning shears: We have taken steps to ensure compliance with the directive. The sentence is direct, authoritative and declarative, which is what we want but failed to achieve with our added pomp and circumstance. I can assure you adds no impact to the declaration we have taken steps. Necessary is wholly unnecessary. The completely overused phrase in order to should just be banished from our writing altogether. We can simply drop the redundant to achieve the goal.

And, for those of you paying attention, the words wholly, completely, just, altogether and simply in my previous three sentences should be pruned as well.

So, our pruning took a 23-word sentence and reduced it to 10 words. This improves readability and impact. We eliminated an introductory clause and a comma, and went straight to the point. In a memo or email or short story with dozens of sentences, the overall impact on the reader is significant.

Most of us know how to do this and it requires no special knowledge of grammar or the technical aspects of writing. All that’s required is a just a little extra time to think about what we really want to say. Spending that time will be much more impressive to our readers than sending our rough drafts to them.

The Write to Discover Blog

Our group leader, Jeff Cowart, publishes a separate writing blog at that seeks to inspire and explores tips, traps and techniques to help writers along. Those interested may subscribe to receive regular emails with the latest blog posting on the site. Links to some of those blog posts are below:

(Note: Following a link takes you away from the Trinity Writers site. To return to Trinity Writers, simply click the BACK button on your browser.)

Original Rhythm and Writing

Of Lightning and Lightning Bugs


Punctuation as a Storytelling Tool

Be Careful with Questions

Uniquely Portable Magic

The Old-Fashioned Dictionary