Copyeditors around the world omit needless words every day in pursuit of brevity and simplicity. The trick in doing so is making sure the words cut from the page are truly needless. After all, someone put them in there in the first place, presumably for a reason.
William Strunk, Jr., told us 95 years ago to omit needless words, and copyeditors have been eagerly complying. Often with inappropriate glee.
In a favorite feature of the Twitter hashtag #amediting, copyeditors share before and after passages where lengthy phrases have been simplified. One recent example: “What this would do is have the effect of” shortened to “This would … .” Good call, but some examples make me wonder, especially as a tweet doesn't give the context for the omission. We can usually shorten and retain the gist, but we risk sacrificing nuance if we are too eager to reduce language to its simplest formulation.
When we speak of goals of copyediting, we ought when we talk of accuracy, clarity, consistency, and simplicity, to also talk about elegance.
Good writing doesn’t just get a message across. It gets a message across in a way that engages the reader. There are some pretty odd word choices in lyrics and poetry, but there are some songs or poems we can recall easily because we are moved by the elegance of the complete package.
Good writing is brief, yes, except sometimes it’s not.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife.
How would Jane Austen’s opening sentence to Pride and Prejudice hold up to an eager editor wishing to omit needless words? The first seven words can be replaced with “obviously” without any harm to meaning. But “obviously” is a word we want to cut when we can—if it’s obvious, it doesn't need to be stated. So:
A single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife.
I don’t imagine there are too many married men looking for a wife. And “be in want of” is wordy.
A man in possession of good fortune must want a wife.
And “in possession of good fortune.” So, rich?
A man who is rich must want a wife.
I think we can even trim that a bit more and still make the point
Rich men want wives.
There. Much better.
Omit needless words, yes, but keep those words that clarify, that emphasize, that add elegance to the writing. Poetry is full of needless words. Speech is full of needless words. Brevity is desirable, but it is not the only thing.