Precision in Writing – Is That Word Necessary?

Writing with precision means more than using the right words and avoiding the nearly right words in a sentence. Sometimes it means taking out redundant words or phrases.

In his book, The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, Evan Marshall drives home that point in a section called “How to Be Your Own Editor.” The book was intended for fiction writers, it’s true, but the principles he advocates hold true also for those of us who write nonfiction. For readers to understand our message, we have to use the exact words needed — with no extraneous words getting in the way.

He illustrates that point in one short section on “Simplicity and Economy” by focusing on several common phrases where we might cut out redundancies like these: (comments following the phrases are mine)

Past history (remember all history is in the past)
The sky above. (Where else would it be?)
Continued on. (Continued means to go on.)
The ceiling/roof overhead. (Where else?)
Join together. (We cannot join apart.)
A little baby. (Most babies are little.)
A brief glance. (Every glance is brief.)
Tall skyscrapers. (That’s why they’re called skyscrapers.)
The end result. (Results are usually found at the end.)

In editing our own work, Marshall said we must scrutinize our writing to find and eliminate redundancies like these, but it’s better to choose our words so carefully that we don’t use them in the first place.

He also cautioned:

“Watch for introductory participles that don’t modify the subject of the sentence — an error that slips past many editors. ‘Leaving the village, the mountains glowed red in the sun’ ‘Opening the closet door, the cat sprang from the shadows.’ These statements give the mountains and the cat undue credit.”

Whatever our writing emphasis, when editing our own work it would profit us to follow Marshall’s advice: “Cast as cold an eye as possible on what you’ve created, recognize its strengths and weaknesses, and revise and edit to bring the manuscript to it full potential.”

Excellent advice for all of us.

Please leave a comment.

©2008 by Laverne Daley
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8 Comments on “Precision in Writing – Is That Word Necessary?”

  1. Laura says:

    My favorite (or most cursed) is 12 noon. I’m not sure how many noons there are, but I’m only aware of one.

    another favorite is “most unique.”

    It’s hard to edit yourself, but it’s even harder when a client edits you and insists you use a redundant term!

  2. Good ones, Laura. I want to hit the TV every time I hear a supposedly educated news anchor say “most unique.” Don’t know why I should, though. These are the same people who seem not to know about future tense. They say “We are back in 2 minutes.” How hard must it be for them to say correctly “We’ll be back in 2 minutes.”

    Good comment from you, Laura. Thanks much.

  3. […] notion of grammar and humor first struck me when I was writing an earlier post on my site (Precision in Writing – Is That Word Necessary?) in which I mentioned dangling […]

  4. Elyse Miriam says:

    “These statements give the mountains and the cat undue credit.”

    I would have to agree that sometimes this technique? is used too much, with confusing results. However, I disagree that the avoidance of these should be absolute. Is it not appropriate to use them in, for example, a mystery story in which tension is being built up, little things are noticed, (like that cat) to detract from the main subject on purpose….? Or am I totally on the wrong track?

    Help a young aspiring writer! (Actually, that’s got me thinking… is ‘young aspiring’ a redundancy?!?)

    • ldaley says:

      Your comment is most interesting. I don’t recall every seeing a dangling participle referred to as a technique. I think most everybody recognizes them as errors in grammar. You are right in the fact that writers use diversions to relieve tension or to divert attention away from what is happening in a story, but I can think of no reason why any writer would rely on a grammatical error to do that. I’d say use a cat if you’d like but do it by making use of correct grammar.

      I’m also interested in your second question about “young aspiring” as a redundancy. Those words don’t look redundant to me at all. One can be young and not aspiring, just as one can be not so young but still aspiring. I’ve known some very young and successful writers who actually were aspiring to be successful at other endeavors.

      What kind of writing do you do, and what kind of writer are you aspiring to be?

      • Elyse Miriam says:


        aha!!! Lightbulb moment.
        “I’d say use a cat if you’d like but do it by making use of correct grammar.”
        Very true! I am still learning about grammar, having totally flunked it at school. (You can probably tell!!) As a result I’m really uncertain and not at all confident about whether this or that is right or not. I just saw that and misinterpreted it quite nicely.
        I love this blog and I’m going to follow it… it can only improve my use of that much-abused language- English. (Guilty of abuse myself, but not intentionally in my writings!)

        I write a bit of poetry, and was quite good at it when I was young, not so much now, so I hope the talent ‘comes back’. Mostly short stories at the moment, but am attempting my very first novel (37,000 word aim) which is an action story. I have a suspicion it’s not much good at all, but I want to finish it for the discipline of not giving up till the bitter end. Only one of my short stories has been published (ironically, about a cat!! which I want to go back and edit sometime) but I have written and published a series of articles about a controversial social issue.
        (Short story here if you’re mildly interested. I would not recommend wandering around the rest, it’s very informal and random!!)

        What do you write? Do you have a blog? Thank-you for correcting me so charitably. Politeness is rare on the internet!!

  5. […] pieces of writing, including Grant Proposals (what the?). One site that was actually useful was and I will probably return to this site many […]

  6. rebecca reis says:

    I have to write up a speech analysis and this really cleared up things for me!! Thank you so much!

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