Writers' Guide > Toward Concise Writing


Almost nobody is naturally concise.  Brevity in writing usually comes about as part of the revision process.  However, becoming aware of the causes of verbosity and attempting to overcome certain habits can make writing style more concise.

The following guidelines help to promote this awareness.  These pointers are in no particular order of importance and, to some extent, overlap.  All of the dos and don'ts described here have, however, the objective of making writing more direct and succinct.

A few words of caution:  Brevity at the expense of clarity is no virtue.  Do not omit words that are indeed necessary for clarity and readability.

Use straightforward sentence structure

Prefer normal, linear sentence patterns of subject ® verb ® rest of idea.  Use other patterns principally for variety.

      n  Start with a substantive subject.  Avoid wheel-spinning beginnings.

                    Roundabout:          It is apparent that he failed the test . . . .

                    Direct:                   He apparently failed the test . . . .

                    Roundabout:          There are some interesting ideas in this essay..

                    Direct:                   This essay has some interesting ideas.

           Note: Expletives (There or It + a form of to be) often signal roundabout sentence structure.

      n  Prefer the active voice of the verb.  Construct sentences in which the subject acts upon the verb, not those (passive verb constructions) in which the subject is the recipient of the action.  (See also separate sheet on "Active and Passive Verbs.")

                    Passive:      Many opinions have been expressed by the class.

                    Active:        The class has expressed many opinions.

                    Passive:      Your order will be shipped next week.

                    Active:        We will ship your order next week.

Omit needless words

      n  Eliminate tautology (use of different words to say the same thing).

               Examples of tautology:  basic fundamentals, basic essentials, vital necessities, circular in shape, consensus of opinion, qualitative in nature, still continue.

      n  Delete needless modifiers.

               Examples:  [adequately] enough; [end] result; [joint] cooperation; [true] facts.

      n  Condense roundabout expressions.

               As noted above, use the active voice.  Also avoid phrases such as:  due to the fact that [because], on the part of [by], in the event that [if], in order to [to].

      n  Remove useless prepositions.

               Examples:  refer [back]; connect [together]; head [up]; outside [of]; reduce [down]

      n  Avoid wordy clichés.

               Examples:       each and every one of us = each of us or all of us

                                      within the realm of possibility = possible

                                      all of a sudden = suddenly

                                      We hope and trust = We hope or We trust

      n  Compress verbose verbs.

               Examples:       are found to be in agreement = agree

                                      make mention of = mention

                                      make an adjustment to = adjust

                                      It is our conclusion that = We conclude that.

                                      We made an analysis of = We analyzed

      n  Eliminate repetition (unless it's needed for clarity or emphasis).

               Combining or compressing sentences is often possible.

Be specific and concrete

      n  Prefer simpler, more common words.  Don't be afraid of everyday language.

               In some contexts parameters might be preferable to limits and utilize might be more appropriate than use - but, in most instances, the simpler word is better.

      n  Avoid archaic (old-fashioned) formalities.

               Fashions change.  Do not use such old-fashioned expressions as kindly for please or in the amount of $20 for for $20.

      n  Select words that stand for something tangible.

               Limit abstract words to the discussion of abstract concepts.  Otherwise, use concrete language.  For example, too much about "aspects," "facets," "phases," and "things" can obscure the meaning.

      n  Avoid jargon; use it only when necessary.

               Although some writing requires specialized vocabulary, ill-defined terms are bad style in any context.  Jargon can be pretentious verbiage that attempts to mask lack of substance.

Develop livelier sentences

      n  Focus on verbs; avoid overdoing nouns and modifiers.

               Example:  Instead of "People have a tendency to have a negative reaction" (the only verb is have), write "People tend to react negatively."

      n  Vary sentence length.

               If sentences are too short, use coordination or subordination (or other methods of linking) to relate ideas.  If sentences are too long, break them up.  Use parallel (or balanced) structure to present many ideas in one sentence (and be careful that it is parallel).  Use short sentences for emphatic points.

      n  Let punctuation work for you.

               Skillful punctuation helps to clarify long, involved sentences.  Dashes (used sparingly) and other marks of punctuation can help to subdivide thought units.  (Note, however, that no amount of punctuation can fix tangled syntax.)

Rich Turner