How To Write Concisely In Essays

8 Steps to More Concise Writing

By Mark Nichol

You know you must streamline your writing, but the devil’s in the details. Here are some specifics about what to look for:

1. Remove Redundancy

Avoid double-teaming terms like “a period of one week,” “end result,” “free gift,” and “personal opinion.” Watch for phrases that echo the quality in question: “oval in shape,” “larger in size,” “shorter in duration,” and the like. Omit redundant words that are already implied as part of an abbreviated term, such as machine in “ATM machine.”

2. Reduce Phrases to Words

Replace a descriptive phrase following a noun with a one-word adjective that precedes the noun: “People who experienced at traveling know better than to label their luggage,” for example, can be revised to “Experienced travelers know better than to label their luggage.

A modifying phrase, similarly, can be reduced to a simple adverb: “Sympathizing with her concerns, he nodded in response to her complaint,” for instance, is more concisely expressed as “He nodded sympathetically in response to her complaint.”

Delete extraneous phrases such as “which is” and “who were,” as shown here: “We drove down Lombard Street, which is considered the crookedest street in the world” is easily simplified to “We drove down Lombard Street, considered the crookedest street in the world.”

3. Omit Gratuitous Intensifiers and Qualifiers

Use adverbs that intensify or qualify in moderation: “They had an extremely unpleasant experience” isn’t accurate unless a subsequent explanation justifies the intensifier extremely, and “I was somewhat taken aback” isn’t necessarily an improvement on “I was taken aback.”

4. Expunge Expletives

“There are” or “there is” is a weak way to start a sentence. “There is a telling passage toward the end of the story” lacks the focus of (and the more vivid verb in) the sentence “A telling passage occurs near the end of the essay.”

5. Negate Nominalizations

“The report gave an analysis of the accident” uses a phrase where a single word suffices. (This is known as a nominalization, or smothering a verb.) When you see a “(verb) a/an (noun)” construction, convert the noun into a verb and replace the phrase with it. In this case, “The report analyzed the accident” is the more concise result. As with deletion of expletives, a stronger verb is an additional benefit.

6. Delete Superfluous Phrases

“At the present time,” “for all intents and purposes,” and “in the event that” are just a few of many meaningless phrases that clutter sentences. Trim them to tighten your writing.

7. Avoid Cliches

Likewise, “face the music,” “litmus test,” “tried and true” and other timeworn phrases add nothing to your writing but words; they’re useful only for padding a word count, but instructors and editors (and readers) will notice.

8. Eschew Euphemisms

Generally, words that disguise concepts degrade language, which is all about expressing, not repressing, meaning. For example, “collateral damage,” in reference to warfare (and, by extension, to all interpersonal relationships), invites derision. However, use of some euphemisms, such as those for human disabilities, is a well-meaning effort to preserve the dignity of the disabled, though some people argue that such cosmetic wording actually harms people by diminishing the seriousness of their condition, or that it is for the benefit not of the disabled but of people who would rather not be reminded of the disabled.

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21 Responses to “8 Steps to More Concise Writing”

  • JW

    Florence, I don’t think we’ll be eradicating “you guys” anytime soon. English lacks a second-person plural pronoun, so people will try to make due with constructions such as “you guys”, “you people”, “you all” or even “y’all”. Unless we manage to resurrect “thou” as a singular pronoun, these annoying attempts at a plural will remain for disambiguation.

  • Florence Hupf

    Off the subject, but just curious: Do you think that in our lifetimes we will ever hear the likes of “You guys” done away with? Drives me crazy, as even in some high-end restaurants, we hear servers ask, “What would you guys like to have to drink?” Argghhh!

  • Robin

    HIV virus makes me crazy. What do people think the V in HIV is?

    Thanks for letting me vent.

  • Judy

    The part about the ‘The report analyzes the accident’. The “report” is the result, so in my opinion, it should be written as follows: The accident analysis is in the report.

  • Oliver Lawrence

    Tricky business, this simplification. If getting the nuances and implications just right is important, then removing linguistic machinery can actually add room for misinterpretation.

    With
    “We drove down Lombard Street, which is considered…”,
    as soon as we get to “considered”, we know that the next part of the sentence will be about the street, in some way.

    Yet with
    “We drove down Lombard Street, considered…”,
    at this point we don’t yet know whether “considered” is a participle referring to Lombard Street or an active verb referring to “We”: the sentence could legitimately continue “… whether to risk the one-way system, then gave up and headed off to Nigel’s house”.

    Leaving wrong pathways open to the reader is likely to make them start off down one of them at some point, which will make them stop and backtrack when they realize they have erred – which does not make for an effective text, especially if the writer’s aim is to persuade or sell.

    It’s a tricky old business is this language lark.

  • Ian

    These are good reminders towards writing that will compel the reader to turn the page.
    But, of course, rules are not rigid. I don’t disagree with #4 but Alan Paton did not just start a sentence, he started one of the world’s great novels with, “There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills.”

  • Constant Writer

    Conciseness is always the way to go no matter what you’re writing. With academic papers, it’s always been very easy for me to be concise, but in my fiction, I tend to ramble. Not as much in the prose, but the dialogue. I think every one of my characters constantly breaks all of those tips when speaking because that’s how people speak. It’s not eloquent and it’s not rehearsed. But even then, there’s always room to tighten up the language in both the prose and the dialogue in the revision process.

  • Geoffrey Talbot – Seven Creative Sentences

    Great Stuff Mark,

    I write a seven sentence daily blog (sevensentences.com) where brevity and concision are things to be valued. Limiting yourself to a word or sentence count and constantly practicing is a great way to develop this skill.

    My biggest problem is qualifiers. For me this lessons the impact of a sentence, like telling a girl she is “kind of” beautiful. Here in lies the power of reading it over the next day.

    The mood you are in when you begin writing is also important. For me deadlines and constraints enhance the directness of my prose and actually help.

    Knowing what works for you is the key.

  • Robyn

    As a technical writer, I’m less concerned about poetic or lyrical writing. Tech writers are some of the worst offenders when it comes to adding useless gobbledygook (that’s a technical term)!

    My practice is to dedicate my first edit to accuracy and consistency, and my second to eradicating cliches, unnecessary modifiers, redundancies, etc. This article provides a great list of the common enemies of clarity. Thanks!

  • Mark Nichol

    Paul:

    I don’t think these guidelines are as severe as Orwell’s. Nor, as I mentioned to Bob, are they strictures to be observed in all cases. I’m merely pointing out specific elements of writing that weaken prose if they are routinely tolerated.

  • Mark Nichol

    Bob:

    Following these guidelines does not discourage poetic or lyrical writing. They simply help writers craft vivid, active, robust prose. Nor am I suggesting that every one must be followed in every piece of writing. Of course allowances should be made for humorous writing.

  • Paul

    Aren’t some of these just reworked versions of Orwell’s rules, which were criticized only a few days ago?

  • Bob Kaplan

    Great advice if all you care about is simply reducing your word count. But if you want your prose to have a poetic or lyrical quality, the most concise way of writing isn’t necessarily the best.

    Gratuitous words intensifiers and qualifiers can help establish the tone in humorous writing, as can euphemisms. Even cliches have their use in this regard.

    Still, this is a useful guideline, particularly items 1, 4, and 7.

  • Lesley

    I disagree with both “The report gave an analysis of the accident” and “The report analyzed the accident” because it is not the report that does the anlayzing, it is a person who then records that analysis in a report.

  • David

    I actually like the “occurs” in #4, personally. “ATM machine” and PIN number” drive me crazy, and we should all be able to agree and concur that people everywhere in all places should stamp out and do away with redundancy!

  • shirley in berkeley

    Remember when “At this point . . . ” was understood to mean, “At this point in time . . . ,” and people didn’t add feel they had to add “IN TIME” every time? (Drives me nuts.)

  • Roberta B.

    Great list! However, I agree with Stephanie on #4. Not only is “occurs” a weak verb, the passive voice keeps it weak. Maybe say: “A telling passage near the end of the story binds together all of the threads”…….or something like that.

  • Stephanie

    Fantastic tips, proving once again the usefulness of this blog!

    I have to disagree with the example in #4, though – “occurs” seems awkward and too corporate for a “telling passage.” But it’s hard to tell out of context.

  • Rebecca

    Thank you for the reminder about redundancy. I read, re-read, and edit my writing until I’m satisfied all unnecessary words are deleted.

  • Ranjith (SR) | A light hearted talk

    I do follow most of the things that might make what I write less concise but still I like it that way.
    – Ranjith

  • Desolie

    Excellent advice, Mark.

    It’s easy to write the way ‘everyone else’ writes without stopping to see if there’s a simpler way to say something.

    Having a mental picture of my ideal reader helps my writing: I want to make it as easy as possible for them to understand my message.

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Academic writing in the social sciences often examines abstruse topics that require in-depth analysis and explanation. As a result, a common challenge to writing college-level research papers is expressing your thoughts clearly by utilizing language that communicates essential information unambiguously. When you proofread your paper, critically review your writing style and the terminology you used throughout your paper. Pay particular attention to identifying and editing the following common categories of imprecise writing.

1. Problems with wordiness – the use of more words than is necessary to communicate a thought or idea.

  • Cliches – these are phrases that have become bland and ordinary through overuse. Besides indicating lazy thinking because they are often used as a substitute for carefully thinking about what to say, cliches should not be used due to the fact that they're often embedded within a specific cultural context. For example, if you say, "The Iraqi diplomat is going out on a limb if he does not protect his country's economic interests during negotiations with the United States." Americans may know what it means to be “out on a limb” [derived from the sport of hunting–get it?], but would someone from another culture know what this refers to?
  • Intensifiers – these include modifying words such as very, literally, radically, definitely, significantly, greatly, extremely, moderately, basically, exceptionally, obviously, really, uncommonly, etc. Intensifiers create the illusion of accentuating words but, in academic writing, intensifiers actually have the opposite effect because they do not covey anything measurable. And editing intensifiers does not imply exchanging the term “extremely large” with the word “huge”; if something is unusual or it needs highlighting, quantify its uniqueness and place it in a comparative context [e.g., instead of saying, “...an extremely large increase in hospital visitations,” state as, “...a 45% increase in hospital visitations since 2010”]. If there is no data to quantify the phenomena, then describe its importance using precise language.
  • Nominalizations – this refers to a verb, adjective, or adverb that has been converted into a noun or noun phrase. Although this practice is not grammatically incorrect, overuse of nominalizations can clutter your writing. Examples include: "take action," "draw conclusions," and "make assumptions." These phrases can be reduced to: "act," "conclude," and "assume." Other nominalizations take the form of adding derivational suffixes to a verb, such as, --ance (deliver to deliverance) or -ize (modern to modernize). Editing the action of the sentence back into a bare infinitive verb [the most basic form of a verb] will undo the nominalization, making the sentence more succinct and easier to read.
  • Stock phrases – this refers to phrases that compromise clarity in your writing by adding unnecessary complexity to the sentence; stock phrases are similar to cliches in that they are overused terms. Examples include: “has the ability to,” “due to the fact that,” “regardless of the fact,” or “at this point in time.” Stock phrases often can and should be reduced to one word. Therefore, the above phrases can be reduced to “can,” “because,” although,” and “now.”
  • Verbal phrases– these are also phrases that contribute little or no meaning to the overall sentence. They are similar to stock phrases but can be reduced to a single action verb. Examples include: “to come to a conclusion,” "to take into consideration," or “to make a determination.” The above phrases can be reduced to “conclude,” "consider," or “determine."

2. Problems with redundancy – refers to the use of words or phrases that possess the same or almost the same meaning.

  • Implied modifiers – this refers to the meaning of a word or phrase possessing the same or very similar meaning of the modifier. These types of modifying words can be subtle and difficult to locate but eliminating them will help clarify your writing. There are two ways to edit these modifiers. For example, if you say, “The next decision of the Supreme Court is difficult to anticipate in advance.” Think about the implied meaning of "anticipate in advance"; if something is happening in advance, it is inherently anticipatory. Restate the sentence using only one of those words. However, implied modifiers can also suggest an incomplete thought about the subject of the sentence. Consider the sentence, “The maritime negotiations between Japan and China remain a difficult challenge.” Any type of challenge is inherently difficult. However, by inserting an explanation [“because”] within the sentence, you expand the thought more completely. Therefore, you can either say, “The maritime negotiations between Japan and China remain a challenge because it is difficult to...,” or you can say, “The maritime negotiations between Japan and China remain difficult because the main challenge is....”
  • Paired synonyms – words paired together that have the same basic meaning may sound appealing when read aloud but they are unnecessary. Examples include: each and every, peace and quiet, first and foremost, alter or change, true and accurate, true and correct, always and forever. Choose only one word from the pairing that reflects the meaning you are trying to convey or use a thesaurus to find a word that more accurately reflects your thoughts. Other word pairings are over-used catch phrases, such as, “first and foremost,” "end result," "various differences," "sudden crisis," or “completely eliminate.” They are redundant and re-state the obvious; choose only one word or eliminate them altogether.

3. Problems with unclear sentence constructions--short, declarative sentences are easier to comprehend than lengthy narratives.

  • Active voice – some professors, particularly in the areas of business, technical, or scientific writing, may prefer that you write papers using a passive voice because they want you to convey objectivity by using an authoritative tone that focuses on the main idea or recommended action rather than the conscious intent underlying the idea or action. However, the passive voice frequently requires more words than is necessary to covey a thought or idea. Unless instructed not to do so, always write using an active voice. Here is an example: Passive–"It is believed by the state legislature that a person’s picture on their drivers license must be updated every five years" [21 words]. In the active voice, the sentence would read: "The state legislature believes that a drivers license picture must updated every five years" [14 words]. Notice here as well the phrase, “a person’s drivers license”; who else would own a drivers license but a person? The word “person’s” is redundant and can also be deleted.
  • Combining sentences – it is most often true that writing shorter, declarative sentences helps the reader better understand the content of each thought or idea. However, it is also the case that two or more sentences may be combined to convey the information more effectively using fewer words. Review your paper and look for paragraphs that appear wordy. This may indicate opportunities to condense sentences. Here is an example: “The BP oil spill occurred in 2010. This oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico prompted greater attention to regulating offshore drilling. Among these regulations was a rule governing procedures for capping wells.” These three sentences can be combined to read: “The 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico prompted greater attention to regulatory procedures for capping offshore drilling wells.” All of the essential information remains, but it is stated more concisely.

Attending to Style. Institute for Writing and Rhetoric. Dartmouth University; Conciseness. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Eser, Jonathan. “Concise is Nice! An Aid for Writing Concisely.” The Writing Center. Georgetown University Law Center; Henning, Cathy. “Brevity isn’t Enough: You Need to Write Tight.” Harvard Management Communication Letter 6 (February 2003): 4-6; How To Write Clearly. Center for Academic Success. Butte College; Howard, Rebecca M. Writing Matters: A Handbook for Writing and Research. 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2014; Mack, Richard N. "Writing with Precision, Clarity, and Economy." Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 67 (March 1986): 31-35;Morrison, Eric. “Grammar Police: The Dos and Don’ts of Writing.” In Getting Your Research Paper Published: A Surgical Perspective. Edited by Mohit Bhandari and Anders Joensson. (New York: Thieme Publishing Group, 2011), pp. 110-120; Revising Your Paper. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College; Writing Clear, Concise Sentences. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Westervelt, Mary. “Concise Writing: Sentence Structure and Wording.” Technical Communication Resources. School of Engineering and Applied Science. University of Pennsylvania; Writing Concisely. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina.

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