Cutting the Fluff from your Writing


Good professional technical writing involves a struggle between conciseness and completeness. Writers need to provide the evidence and reasoning to justify their claims in the shortest space possible. Cutting too much or the wrong things, however, can damage your ability to support your decisions. It’s important, then, to be able to differentiate between “fluff,” unnecessary language adding little to nothing of value to the document, and the essence of the document. Celia Elliott’s lecture on “fluff”  helps do that by classifying “fluff” into four distinct categories, which we can vigorously seek out and eliminate:

  1. Unnecessary words, redundancies, and wordy expressions
  2. Pointless modifiers
  3. Tautologies
  4. Meaningless generalities

In this short article, we’ll look at the first category. Unnecessary words, redundancies, and wordy expressions can slip in very easily, but they’re also easy to identify. Consider the following simple sentence:

Some fluorophores appear green in colour, while others appear red in colour. 

If we ask what information is redundant, we should see that “in colour” is unnecessary: green and red already imply colour. Eliminating four words might not seem like much, but they constitute 30% of the above sentence. Imagine cutting 30% from your entire document!

Wordy expressions are another blight on concise writing. Consider the following phrases: what single word might they be replaced with? * Answers at the bottom of this page

  1. Due to the fact that … 
  2. In the very near future …
  3. On the order of …
  4. At the present time …
  5. A very limited number of cases that …

Importantly, fluff doesn’t just get in the way of conciseness; it can get in the way of meaning. Take for example the following phrase:

…an electron whose spin is aligned with the two other electrons on either side of it…

Are we talking three electrons here, or five? Here, the suggested revision – “an electron whose spin is aligned with the electron on either side of it” – doesn’t save as much space, but eliminates an ambiguity in the sentence itself.

Celia Elliott’s lecture provides further examples of how to cut general wordiness, as well as the three other categories: pointless modifiers (eg. essentially, basically), tautologies (using different words to say the same thing without adding meaning), and meaningless generalities (phrases so broad that they have been made contentless).  Follow her advice to save much needed space in your writing.

*Answer key: because, soon, about, now, seldom

Department of Physics University of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignCelia Mathews Elliott has worked as a technical writer and administrator at the University of Illinois since 1993. Although her primary responsibilities involve departmental administration and working with faculty to develop research proposals for federal funding agencies, she has taught undergraduate courses in scientific and technical communications for physics majors since 2000. Recently, she co-developed and team-teaches a graduate-level technical writing course in the Department of Physics. You can read more about her at her site.

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