Is Your Writing Concise?

I have long had problems with wordiness, writing complex sentences when a simple phrase would have made my point more clearly. For this guide, however, I have toned down my style, and in this article I will discuss approaches I have taken to avoid wordiness.

Put briefly: the pathway to poor writing is paved with needless words. Let me rephrase that, even more briefly: Good writing is concise.

The latter lacks the metaphor of the original, but it communicates its premise without any padding. So although the first, longer version has its strengths, the second demonstrates the central benefit of concise writing: Clarity.

Each unnecessary word in a sentence dilutes its content. Compressing ten words into four, as I did above, gives the message a force it did not previously possess. Concise writing expresses meaning directly and clearly in a way that wordiness cannot.

A hallmark appliance of the modern office worker, staplers have become to modern industrialized nations what the aqueducts were to the ancient Romans of two millennia ago.

Concise writing also provides more room for content. Check out this padded sentence:

The language here is haughty and artificial – evidence that the writer is trying to sound "academic." While such wordiness may help you reach a minimum page length, it takes up space that you could fill with supporting detail, as in this revision:

Staplers have become indispensable to modern life. An MIT study recently found that only computers and automobiles receive more daily use.

The first sentence in this passage conveys the entire point of the original, while leaving more room to elaborate with details and cited information. If nothing else, professors love content. So, instead of relying on useless words to extend a paper, you should state and then support your ideas with relevant, meaningful words. Don't worry about sounding "learned." Instead, focus on making points and making sense.

Let's run through another example.

The Far Side, a comic written by Gary Larson, offered oblique commentary on issues of the environment.

Where's the padding in this sentence?

1. Let's start with the phrase, "a comic written by Gary Larson." You can often make your writing more concise with possessives, as in "Gary Larson's comic The Far Side."

2. What about "offered oblique commentary"? You could replace it with a single verb, "commented" — or, if you like the word oblique, with "commented obliquely."

3. Finally, "issues of the environment" becomes more concise if you change "of the environment" into an adjective: "environmental issues." So, let's make these revisions:

Gary Larson's comic The Far Side commented obliquely on environmental issues.

That's six fewer words. You now have more space to elaborate your point.

Gary Larson's comic The Far Side commented obliquely on environmental issues. Cows became a symbol of global warming.

Now the writing is more forceful and more specific. How can you go wrong? Concision will almost always improve your writing.

This is not to say that you should seek brevity at all costs. Changing "Needless words promote poor writing" to "Words promote writing" does no good. The new sentence is true, but it lacks crucial adjectives to narrow its scope and convey its intended meaning. Avoid needless words, not words in general.

And to clear up another misconception: "concise writing" is not a code phrase for "short, choppy sentences." You can write long sentences and still be concise, so long as you avoid needless words. Let's revise our example one last time:

Gary Larson's comic The Far Side commented obliquely on environmental issues, using cows to symbolize global warming.

The sentence is fairly long, but it doesn't have much in the way of padding to it.

Now, let's go over some pointers to help make writing concise.


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