Brevity is one of the characteristics of good writing; it’s also one of the hardest for writers (especially new ones) to achieve. Writers have a tendency to hang on to the words they commit to paper, even when editing them out would result in better prose (a process Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch called “murdering your darlings”). When the writing is your own, you’re often the last person to realize some words, sentences, or even entire paragraphs are superfluous and need to go. It’s best to start desensitizing yourself to the pain of deleting your own writing by editing out redundancies that are easy for even novice writers to spot.
These redundancies are called pleonasms, words that are repetitive and unnecessary to the meaning of a sentence. They usually appear alongside a synonym and are easier to recognize than other forms of verbiage because two adjacent words that have the same meaning tend to call attention to themselves. An easier way to identify pleonasms is to remember they are the opposite of oxymorons, a combination of contradictory terms (e.g., jumpo shrimp).
Examples of Pleonasms
Examples of redundant phrases can be found very easily just driving to the grocery store or the local mall. If you’re not the adventuring type, opening the paper or turning on the television will yield just as many pleonasms. Here are just a few of the more common ones:
- “Free gift” – Presents, by definition, do not cost you anything.
- “New [and] improved” – Improvements can only be done to pre-existing items.
- “Lift/Raise/Climb up” or “Descend/Fall/Lower down” – Each of these verbs already contains directionality.
- “Unexpected surprise” – Surprises are never expected.
You should start to get the idea what a repetitious phrase looks like now. Sometimes there may be a conjunction like “and” or a comma separating words that are synonymous, as in the phrases “old and ancient ruins” and “frigid, cold depths.” In these cases, one word can still be deleted to make the message more succinct (just remember to also remove the conjunction or comma!). For a very thorough list of English pleonasms, see Pleonasms and Redundant Phrases. Once you start keeping your eyes peeled for redundancies in writing, you’re going to start seeing pleonasms everywhere!
Great writing doesn’t have to be overflowing with flowery language that spills onto page after page. Some of the most beloved and impactful novels we have are slim paperbacks that barely break 100 pages. George Orwell’s 1984, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 all come to mind.
I cannot tell you that editing your own work is easy, especially when it comes to deleting words you spent long hours coming up with, but what I can assure you is that it gets easier with practice. Removing repetitious phrases from your writing is a simple exercise that is guaranteed to make a noticeable improvement in your work.
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