The Elements of Style urges us to “omit needless words”:
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 their sentences short, or that they avoid all detail and treat their subjects only in outline, but that they make every word tell.1
This principle has become a core part of how I think about writing. I often fall short, but striving (and editing) are both healthy and helpful.
But I am often communicating in mediums and contexts not envisioned by Professor Strunk. Sometimes I am writing asynchronous communiques (emails), and other times synchronous chats. I may be presenting slides to a general audience, or discussing implementation details with a technical one. When writing posts such as this, I am balancing brevity with my desire to think through something and express myself fully.
“Omit needless words” is still a sound principle, but it doen’t fully capture these scenarios. So I humbly offer an analogue - exclude unnecessary information.
As with any aphorism, the value hinges on interpretation. Let’s consider each word:
- “Exclude”: a straightforward synonym for omit. It does not mean to hide the information or make it secret - simply to not promote it or give it focus. Appendices or “knowledge annexes” can be a helpful tool here.
- “Unnecessary”: same as “needless”, but a bit more “action-oriented.” It provides the context for which the “exclude” decision should be made.
- “Information”: the most varied, and subjective, term. Simply declaring something “informative” makes it seem essential, so suggesting we identify and exclude unnecessary information is an interesting proposition.
“Exclude unnecessary information” is less spartan than “omit needless words”, and at the same time more specific. It acknowledges that, for most things, fully optimizing on word count is a quixotic ideal. Words that are, strictly speaking, “needless”, may still help charm or sway an audience. The real thing to balance is how much context and detail is essential to support the idea that is being shared.
How to decide what is or isn’t essential information? The same as any careful consideration - asking why something is the way it is, and then focusing on the pieces that are relevant to your audience.
This means that, in most situations, you’ll spend far more time considering and revising than your audience will consuming your thoughts. That asymmetry is a good thing, as it forces you to deliver quality - and remember, your audience is often numerous, so even in small doses their time adds up.
If you find yourself communicating in ways that are inessential, pause and ruminate - what matters to who you are talking to? What is the purpose of this interaction?
There are of course situations where such high standards are excessive - casual interactions and close relationships where the purpose of communication is not the substance but the symbolism. But most professional and functional interactions are not like that, and it is a significant presumption to believe that all of your interlocutors care about your personal life.
You may object - “But we are social animals! Icebreakers and camaraderie are essential!*”
We are social, but we have diverse preferences and states of mind. Camaraderie is critical, but it must be built authentically and not forced.
Read the room. Pour for the drink, not the bottle. Omit needless words. And exclude unnecessary information.