A Good Sign
In its tweeted list “Words de Doom,” Appellate Twitter gives 55 “commonly overused” words and phrases we can remove “at the end of [our] writing process,” for a clearer, more concise document; words like accordingly, as such, in any event, to be sure, in other words, suffice it to say, what is more, clearly, and the fact that. Words like these don’t “tell.”
Many years ago, while teaching lawyers how to improve their writing, I noticed “signs” that exist in all writing, certain words that often and reliably signal the presence of words we do not need to make our point. These word-signs appear all through the phrases above that Appellate Twitter recommends we remove: in, what, as, that, to be. Over several years, I found a dozen of these signs, and then I stopped seeing them, and I realized that the set was finite, which then made me wonder if we could use these signs to develop technology to recognize patterns of unnecessary words; not just detect accordingly and clearly and remove them, but understand the context in which these needless words appear and determine when we should leave them alone, and when we should remove them.
No Middle Ground
When we started our editing software company, our goal was to develop technology and algorithms that could search sentences and recognize words that add no meaning. There is no middle ground. Words are either helping us convey meaning, or they’re getting in the way of other words trying to help us convey meaning. Which is another way of saying what Professor Strunk advocated back in the late 19th century—no extra lines in a painting, no extra parts in a machine, no extra words in a sentence.
After 10 years of refining this process, and receiving nine patents, we not only can remove single words like accordingly and clearly, but we also can assess the context for tens of thousands of phrases and know which ones to remove. One example: the fact that can appear 26 ways—possibly more, we’re still looking—and we have to know in which of these 26 contexts the phrase is unnecessary and how to remove it without changing the meaning of the words around it. When writers push the “Rake” button, they must feel confident the software knows what to do.
Of the 55 words and phrases on the Appellate Twitter list, at least 16 are words that in the right context will convey meaning to a reader—however, never, none, perhaps; or and and but to start a sentence (E.B. White himself did that frequently). Rarely would we need to avoid these 16 words. That leaves 39 needless words and phrases on the list, and of those 39, WordRake knows when to remove 28 at the push of a button. This is the software we envisioned years ago, the personal editor that insists every word tell, to help us be the best writers we can be.
About the Author
Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for the American Bar Association, the Social Security Administration, PG&E, Kraft, Microsoft, and law firms like Jones Day, Sidley, and WilmerHale. His critically-acclaimed Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea hit #7 on the New York Times Bestsellers List.