Less Is More: Tips for Removing Unnecessary Words

Jerry Talandis Jr.


With this issue, the Writer’s Workshop column enters its sixth year. It thus feels like a good moment to look back in order to chart a new course forward. Over the past five years, we’ve provided advice and support on various themes connected to academic writing. In our first year, we took deep dives into standard sections of research papers, such as thesis statements (TLT issue #39.5), abstracts (39.6), literature reviews (40.1), references (40.2), and presenting statistics (40.4). We’ve also covered common genres of academic writing, such as how to publish conference proposals (43.2), presentations (41.3), book reviews (42.1), and consent forms (44.2). We even did a 4-part series on KAKEN grant proposals (42.2~42.5). Thanks to a lot of good work from the editors and contributors, our column has grown into a comprehensive resource for those looking to publish academically. Where to next?

Over the years, one largely unexplored area has been in-depth guidance on academic writing at the sentence and word level. We have touched upon this theme from time to time. For example, Loran Edwards, in her 2016 column, wrote how good academic writing is “concise and easy to understand—not just by the experts, but by everyone” (p. 34). However, as she noted, achieving this level of clarity and simplicity takes a lot of work. Clearly expressed thoughts rarely appear fully-formed from our minds—they must be shaped and crafted into existence. Many would-be authors would like to improve their writing, but don’t know how. There is a lot to explore here, so I’ll devote the coming year to in-depth advice for improving academic writing skills.

Less Is More

As a long-time volunteer with The Language Teacher, I’ve seen many submissions decrease their chances for publication due to unpolished writing, a problem which takes many forms. One of the most egregious ones is too many extraneous words. Take, for example, the following simple sentence:

He is a speaker of English.

No problem here, of course, but if you cut the “of”, you get a more concise formulation: He is an English speaker. Dropping a single word may not seem like much, but you’d be surprised how it adds up. Over the course of an entire paper, a word here or there can eventually result in hundreds of fewer words. If you cut words but maintain core ideas, clarity and readability increase. By creating space and bringing more attention to what is essential, less truly becomes more. In the end, your message is what matters—the words are just a means to that end. The more concisely you write, the better. As Strunk and White (2000) put it in their classic guide, The Elements of Style:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all details and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. (p. 32)


A Polishing Process

Here is a simple polishing process you can try upon finishing a manuscript. First, get a good night’s sleep! Take a rest and give yourself a bit of distance from your project. Difficult if you’re facing a strict deadline, I know, but if you manage your time well, you can do it. Giving yourself a small break allows your brain to process what you’ve written. With refreshed energy, you can re-engage with clearer eyes. Next, read your paper aloud, slowly, letting each sentence reverberate in your mind. Alternatively, copy and paste your writing into a free online text-to-speech reader and listen to what you wrote. Hearing your writing, either via your own voice or someone else’s, provides a useful perspective which facilitates editing. Go deep into your manuscript. Reflect on each sentence and word. What role does it play? Can you do without it? Feel free to play around with different combinations until something feels just right. Listen also for the transitions between sentences and paragraphs. How well do they flow together? Through this process, you’ll be able to identify and avoid extraneous language.

What language is ripe for cutting? First, aim for low hanging fruit by substituting concise alternatives for common needless expressions, like those in Table 1.


Table 1. Needless Expressions and Their Alternatives (Strunk & White, 2000, p. 32)

Needless words

Concise alternatives

the question as to whether


there is no doubt but that

no doubt (doubtless)

used for fuel purposes

used for fuel

he is a man who


in a hasty manner


this is a subject that

this subject

Her story is a strange one.

Her story is strange.

the reason why is that


owing to the fact that

since (because)

in spite of the fact that

though (although)

call your attention to the fact that

remind you (notify you)

I was unaware of the fact that

I was unaware that (did not know)

the fact that he had not succeeded

his failure

the fact that I had arrived

my arrival

Next, take heed of your voice and the way you make assertions. As Strunk and White (2000) note, the active voice and positive assertions are inherently more concise. For example:

Table 2. Passive vs Active Voice, Negative vs Positive Assertions (Strunk & White, 2006, p. 29)




Passive voice

My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.


Active voice

I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.


Negative assertion

He was not very often on time.


Positive assertion

He usually came late.


After you’ve removed these obvious offenders, what next? All may look well, but with deeper reflection, you can still find room for improvement. To illustrate, take the following sentence, which I wrote recently for a forthcoming chapter on formative assessment:

Therefore, to fully realize the benefits, you’ll need to train your students well, deal effectively with potential interpersonal problems, and calculate final grades from a variety of perspectives.

Upon first listening, this sentence felt… okay, but something was a tad off. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but then—a sudden insight: what happens if I cut the phrase, you’ll need to? I gave it a try:

Therefore, to fully realize the benefits, train your students well, deal effectively with potential interpersonal problems, and calculate final grades from a variety of perspectives.

Yes! Much better, I thought. Clearer and stronger. Now… How about the word “potential?” Hm… do I really need it? Yeah... well, if I take it out, am I implying interpersonal problems already exist? Hm... I don’t want to say that. So, yeah, just to be safe, let’s leave it in. Like this, paying attention and questioning the existence of every word in the grander scheme is what polishing is all about.

As you can see, manuscript polishing requires time and energy. It can be quite a boring process, actually! If you have trouble maintaining concentration, put on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones and listen to some ambient music to get into a creative state. Take breaks when needed, and don’t over obsess. Trust that your efforts to cut needless words will give your paper a decided edge over unpolished submissions. Trained editors can instantly recognize crafted prose and will look highly upon it, knowing full well how much work it took to achieve that level of clarity. Free of entanglements, your paper can then be judged more fairly on its merits.

Omitting needless words is just the start. In future columns, we’ll revisit this “less is more” theme by exploring other ways to improve our academic writing.   



Edwards, L. (2016). Writing with “academic” style. The Language Teacher, 40(6), 34–35. https://doi.org/10.37546/JALTTLT40.6

Strunk, Jr., W. & White, E. B. (2000). The elements of style (4th edition). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.