This resource will help you write clearly by eliminating unnecessary words and rearranging your phrases.
Contributors: Ryan Weber, Nick Hurm
Last Edited: 2013-02-27 10:18:41
The goal of concise writing is to use the most effective words. Concise writing does not always have the fewest words, but it always uses the strongest ones. Writers often fill sentences with weak or unnecessary words that can be deleted or replaced. Words and phrases should be deliberately chosen for the work they are doing. Like bad employees, words that don't accomplish enough should be fired. When only the most effective words remain, writing will be far more concise and readable.
This resource contains general conciseness tips followed by very specific strategies for pruning sentences.
1. Replace several vague words with more powerful and specific words.
Often, writers use several small and ambiguous words to express a concept, wasting energy expressing ideas better relayed through fewer specific words. As a general rule, more specific words lead to more concise writing. Because of the variety of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, most things have a closely corresponding description. Brainstorming or searching a thesaurus can lead to the word best suited for a specific instance. Notice that the examples below actually convey more as they drop in word count.
Wordy: The politician talked about several of the merits of after-school programs in his speech
Concise: The politician touted after-school programs in his speech.
Wordy: Suzie believed but could not confirm that Billy had feelings of affection for her.
Concise: Suzie assumed that Billy adored her.
Wordy: Our Web site has made available many of the things you can usefor making a decision on the best dentist.
Concise: Our website presentscriteriafor determining the best dentist.
Wordy: Working as a pupil under someone who develops photos was an experience that really helped me learn a lot.
Concise: Working as a photo technician's apprentice was an educational experience.
2. Interrogate every word in a sentence
Check every word to make sure that it is providing something important and unique to a sentence. If words are dead weight, they can be deleted or replaced. Other sections in this handout cover this concept more specifically, but there are some general examples below containing sentences with words that could be cut.
Wordy: The teacher demonstrated some of the various ways and methods for cutting words from my essay that I had written for class.
Concise: The teacher demonstrated methods for cutting words from my essay.
Wordy: Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood formed a new band of musicians together in 1969, giving it the ironic name of Blind Faith because early speculation that was spreading everywhere about the band suggested that the new musical group would be good enough to rival the earlier bands that both men had been in, Cream and Traffic, which people had really liked and had been very popular.
Concise: Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood formed a new band in 1969, ironically naming it Blind Faith because speculation suggested that the group would rival the musicians’ previous popular bands, Cream and Traffic.
Wordy: Many have made the wise observation that when a stone is in motion rolling down a hill or incline that that moving stone is not as likely to be covered all over with the kind of thick green moss that grows on stationary unmoving things and becomes a nuisance and suggests that those things haven’t moved in a long time and probably won’t move any time soon.
Concise: A rolling stone gathers no moss.
3. Combine Sentences.
Some information does not require a full sentence, and can easily be inserted into another sentence without losing any of its value. To get more strategies for sentence combining, see the handout on Sentence Variety.
Wordy: Ludwig's castles are an astounding marriage of beauty and madness. By his death, he had commissioned three castles.
Concise: Ludwig's three castles are an astounding marriage of beauty and madness.
Wordy: The supposed crash of a UFO in Roswell, New Mexico aroused interest in extraterrestrial life. This crash is rumored to have occurred in 1947.
Concise: The supposed 1947 crash of a UFO in Roswell, New Mexico aroused interest in extraterrestrial life.
HOW TO WRITE CLEARLY: USING PRECISE AND CONCISE LANGUAGE
A writer's job is to create meaning for readers. Expository writers in particular are responsible for clearly spelling out the relationships between ideas and for leading readers convincingly to a desired conclusion. In the business world that most students will enter, this reader-oriented, presentational writing will be in high demand. Even in college, when an instructor asks you to write 2,000 words, he means 2,000 good words. You must cut out wordiness and use precise language.
This TIP sheet offers two ways to move beyond simple grammatical correctness. It teaches you to streamline writing by using the following:
- Precise language: A vocabulary of precise nouns and vivid verbs helps you create strong mental pictures and avoid wordiness.
- Concise language: Using the fewest possible words without sacrificing meaning makes your writing more understandable. Especially avoid unnecessary use of the verb "to be" when it contributes to nominalizations and expletives.
Never sacrifice clarity to novelty. This sometimes occurs when student writers work with a thesaurus in one hand, choosing substitutes from a list of approximately similar, though unfamiliar, words. "Visage" replaces "face," "endeavors" replaces "tries," "cogitation" replaces "thought," "subsequent to" replaces "after." Or, as a result of late-night brainstorming (or having read too many bad financial aid packets, perhaps?), "at the present time" replaces "now," "in the event of" replaces "if," and "in the majority of instances" replaces "usually."
For example, a speech writer for President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote the first sentence below; FDR himself revised it:
We are endeavoring to construct a more inclusive society.
We're going to make a country in which no one is left out.
Never sacrifice meaning to novelty. That is, never search for a synonym just to dress up an idea, and never use an unfamiliar word from the thesaurus to replace a perfectly good familiar word. Thesaurus words may be similar or related, yet not be identical or even equivalent in meaning. Unfamiliar words may carry the wrong connotation or be simply unsuitable for your audience. Learn a word's meaning and usage before using it.
For example, the second sentence below is not identical in meaning with the first (or indeed even comprehensible!), although the word substitutions come from a standard thesaurus:
In addition to studying Western culture, students should be required to study Asian, African, or other cultures. This expanded cultural study would foster understanding of the modern global community.
In addition to examination of Western enlightenment, a pupil ought to remain to apply one's mind to Oriental, African, or choice cultures. Such an enlarged edifying trance would guest of empathy of latter-day universal public.
Never sacrifice meaning to belonging. That is, avoid jargon, or words and expressions known only to people with specialized knowledge or interests. Even if readers know the jargon, it is more difficult to read than plain English and slows down comprehension. Check your writing once expressly to locate jargon, and cut out as much as you can. If technical words or expressions are unavoidable (and they sometimes are), define them the first time you use them and try sometimes to substitute a plainer word. The trick is to cut the verbiage without sacrificing meaning.
For example, contrast the two sentences below, the first written by a scientist using scientific jargon, the second revised into plain English:
The biota exhibited a one hundred percent mortality response.
All the fish died.
Choosing precise nouns makes it unnecessary to add layers of descriptive adjectives that lengthen sentences and comprehension time. (Your adjectives, anyway, will have greater impact if they are not overused.) Compare the following generic nouns on the left with the more connotative suggestions on the right:
|youth||juvenile, teenager, child, adolescent|
|woman||lady, mistress, matron, femme fatale|
|house||cabin, mansion, cottage, villa|
|group||horde, clan, team, committee|
Perhaps even more than nouns and adjectives, vivid verbs awaken strong images in readers' minds. Strong verbs do more than almost anything else to improve prose. Compare the following:
|Get the audience involved||involve the audience|
|Got to see that||realized|
|Put in||installed, deposited|
|Put off||postpone, delay|
|Put into action||activate|
|Put in place||arrange, place|
After college, when a job recruiter reads your resume, he or she may simply refuse to wade through excess verbiage. A wordy resume may be tossed. And a future supervisor will want to be able to comprehend your summary report rapidly and painlessly. Writing that is concise packs maximum meaning into the fewest possible words–think of how you would pack your suitcase for an extended tour of Europe. If you use precise language, you will probably find you are already using fewer words. However, if you examine how you use "to be" verbs–am, is, are, were, was, been–you may find even more that you can condense.
As much as possible, replace the verb "to be" with a stronger verb. "To be" is often part of a construction called an expletive, a filler expression like "there were," "it is," or "here are." The problem with expletives, besides their meaninglessness, is that they are wordy and their verbs are lackluster. The subject follows the verb, resulting in an indirect, roundabout expression (also see TIP Sheet "Active and Passive Voice"). To avoid expletives, lead with the subject or even choose a different subject and, if possible, substitute a vivid verb to make the sentence more straightforward and easier to understand:
There are problems with the lease.
The lease has problems.
There are several good reasons to delay making this decision.
We should delay making this decision for several reasons.
There is a natural desire among adolescents to experience freedom from authority.
Adolescents naturally crave freedom from authority.
Expletives often occur with nominalizations. Nominalizations are nouns created by adding an ending to a verb or an adjective: "specificity" from the verb "specify," for example, or "validity" from the adjective "valid." Writing that is overloaded with nominalizations (think government publications) is hard to understand, is almost always too wordy, and uses weaker verbs. Change the nominalizations back into verbs or adjectives if possible:
There is a requirement that all students have an evaluation of their transcripts for placement purposes or to meet a prerequisite.
Changing nominalizations back into verbs:
The college requires that the admissions office evaluate all student transcripts for placement and prerequisites.
Even complex ideas–especially complex ideas–benefit from a careful effort to condense and to eliminate unnecessary words. By streamlining your writing you help your readers understand–and that is the point, after all.