Write More Effectively by Eliminating Six Words
Updated: Feb 21
Write more clearly, more efficiently, and more effectively by eliminating six words: should, must, have-to, supposed, deserve, and ought. Writers use those words to encourage their readers to act. But these words provide directions without motivation; they obscure both the underlying force requesting the action and the consequences from failing to comply. Eliminating these words forces writers to uncover the buried forces and causal chains, and it forces writers to write more persuasively.
Should, Must, Have-to, Supposed, Deserve, and Ought hide moral directives.
Often, authors hide behind the six words to advocates the outcome he or she believes morality requires: “You are supposed to say grace before dinner.” “You should wash your hands before eating.” Eliminating those words reveals hidden operative facts:
The authority directing the outcome the author advocates,
The force causing the outcome, and,
The consequence from declining to comply.
Indeed, when authors eliminate these six words, it forces them to understand their argument more precisely and they consequently write more persuasively.
Routine Examples from the Headlines
Reviewing three headlines in detail demonstrates precisely what the author is hiding and structures that present the arguments more clearly and directly:
Members of Congress serve in the military. They shouldn’t. 
Educators Ought to Embrace Educational Choice. 
Do Muslims Have to Be Democrats Now? 
A. "Members of Congress serve in the military. They shouldn’t."
For the first headline, the word “should” hides the force of the argument. It does not explain why the author does not want members of Congress serving.
This makes the argument plain: “Members of Congress violate the Constitution when they serve in the military.”
Rewriting this headline explains immediately why the author does not want members of Congress serving in the military, and that the force arises from the Constitution and not solely from his moral authority. It also explains what happens if members of Congress serve: they violate the Constitution.
B. "Educators Ought to Embrace Educational Choice."
This second headline hides the goal that the author is seeking to advance by following the author’s direction. The initial headline does not suggest why educators would want school choice, and it does not reveal the consequences if educators do not embrace school choice. Reading the article reveals the author contends that school choice will increase competition and lead to better working environments and compensation.
Try this rewrite: “Embracing Educational Choice will Improve Teachers’ Work Environments and Compensation.”
This new, proposed headline still entices the reader (a) while implying that competition will improve teachers’ work environments and compensation and (b) while predicting that the situation will otherwise remain the same.
C. "Do Muslims Have to Be Democrats Now?"
This third headline candidly admits that the author does not know what he is arguing. But by using “have to,” this headline again hides the argument. The author does not state what is forcing Muslims to join the Democrat Party. It does not foreshadow why Muslims may not want to do that. It does not reveal what would happen if Muslims do not join.
Answering these questions reveals a stronger headline: “Muslims will not want to join a Democrat Party that fears supporting Muslims would undermine candidates’ electoral chances.”
This revised headline encapsulates the author’s argument and the forces behind it.
Readers can better interpret arguments by spotting these words.
While writers focus their arguments by eliminating these six words, readers who spot them can better understand the writer’s argument. When readers want to understand a statement in detail, they can try to rewrite the sentences that include these six words. Inevitably, that attempt will raise questions on the author’s motivation and the forces on which the author is relying for his or her argument. That technique allows the reader to understand the author’s argument better and even to find flaws in it.
With effort, one could learn to identify these words in real time as people talk. Unwinding those statements on the fly will reveal information the speaker is omitting–inadvertently or on purpose. Catching those words will not only enrich conversations, but also will enable more effective communication by highlighting ambiguities and misinterpretations.
 M.L. Cavanaugh, Washington Post (June 2, 2017), available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/06/02/members-of-congress-shouldnt-serve-in-the-military/?utm_term=.e9689218f2f3.
 Corey A. DeAngelis, Cato Institute (May 9, 2017), at https://www.cato.org/blog/educators-ought-embrace-educational-choice.
 Wajahat Ali, New York Times (May 13, 2017), available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/13/opinion/sunday/do-muslims-have-to-be-democrats-now.html.