Failing to Focus on the Subject

Here deadwood comes from wandering away from the topic, from pursuing irrelevancies:

> Don't Open Up Topics You Will Not Develop

Now an idea in itself may be interesting, but if it does not support your topic it is just deadwood:

The people had come to the new world for freedom of several different kinds, and had found injustice instead.

There is nothing inherently dead in "of several different kinds." But the writer does not discuss these kinds of freedom (nor does his subject require him to). To mention them at all, then, is a mistake. The phrase contributes nothing to the main point. Even worse, it mutes the contrast between the key terms "freedom" and "injustice" and misleads readers by pointing to a path of development they will not find.

t> Avoid the Distinction Without a Difference A pointless distinction is naming several varieties of something when those varieties do not matter for your purpose:

Under the honor system, teachers do not have to stand guard during exams, tests, and quizzes.

There are of course real differences among exams, tests, and quizzes, and had the writer been concerned with the various modes of testing students must endure, the distinctions would have been vital. But in fact the topic is the honor system, and the distinction is empty. One word would do, probably "tests," the most general.

t> Don't Overqualify

It is worth saying again that excessive caution leads to dead-wood:

Theater-in-the-round somewhat resembles an arena.

Why so cautious? Resembles does not mean "identical with"; it doesn't need the protection of "somewhat." Writing so timidly is like holding up one's trousers with belt, suspenders, and several huge safety pins. As we discussed on pages 1068, qualification is often necessary if you are to treat ideas without ignoring their complexity. But pointless qualification is wordy foolishness.

The verbs seem and tend and the windy phrase can be said to be (in place of a simple is) often indicate overqualification:

After a square dance the people are pretty tired, but it seems that when they have tried it once they want more. j BETTER: ... but when they have tried it once they want more.

i This play tends to be a comedy. BETTER: This play is a comedy.

Ethan can be said to be a tragic hero. BETTER: Ethan is a tragic hero.

Another verb that is often deadwood is would. This auxiliary does have legitimate indicate a conditional action, for example:

I would have gone if I had known you were there.

Or to anticipate a future effect:

The defeat would ultimately prove disastrous.

But when there is no question of doubt or conditionality or an anticipated future, would is a wasted word (and sometimes subtly misleading):

That would be my brother at the door. BETTER: That is my brother at the door.

CHAPTER

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