Tips, Tricks and Things to Avoid

1. Avoid uninformative adjectives and adverbs; rely on nouns and verbs.

Otherwise, you will wind up with cluttered sentences like this:

One fascinating point is that George Washington obviously never used Wikipedia.

The adjective fascinating and the adverb obviously add nothing here. Better to write:

George Washington never used Wikipedia.

As a rule of thumb, avoid any words indicating that an idea is interesting (fascinating, remarkable) unless the idea is very interesting, and never use words like obviously or evidently. If a fact is interesting or obvious, it will speak for itself. Focus on who and what.

I won't deny that carefully chosen modifers can sometimes add a great deal to your writing. For example, I wouldn't have wanted to publish that last sentence without the phrase carefully chosen. But try not to overdo it.

2. Avoid saying there is, there are, or it is. For example:

Animals have developed many self-defense mechanisms. There are some frogs that squirt blood at threats.

There is and There are mean simply, "Something exists." But a sentence about frogs implies that those frogs exist. A concise writer would just start off with "some frogs."

Animals have developed many self-defense mechanisms. Some frogs squirt blood at threats.

Is there any difference in meaning? No. But the writing is concise now, and squirt is a more interesting main verb than are.

3. Try to avoid using it is in sentences where it does not refer to anything.

It is wrong to say that Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo.

If this sentence is refuting a error-prone historian, it ought to cite him directly: "Professor X is mistaken when he claims that Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo." Otherwise, you could make this sentence concise simply by dispensing with "It is wrong to say" and beginning with the human subject: Napoleon himself.

Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo.

4. Avoid "of" constructions. For example:

The creation of Batman in the 1930s...

The atomic weight of Cesium...

Often, these constructions are merely elaborate ways of expressing possession. Just write Batman's creation or Cesium's atomic weight. Bam! Concision!

5. Make the doer of the action the grammatical subject of your sentence.

This rule is especially useful if, as in the Napoleon example, the doer is a human being. As we like to say on the Crew, "Human subjects are magical." Consider these examples:

The decision that the president announced after much deliberation was that he would veto the war funding bill.

After much deliberation, the president announced that he would veto the war funding bill.

The first sentence tells us, not very concisely, what the decision was. The second sentence tells us, with greater concision and dramatic force, what the president did. That's what we mean by magic.

Even if the doer in a sentence is not a human being, you should still try to make the doer your subject. Consider these examples:

The definition of photosynthesis in the American Heritage Dictionary is...

The American Heritage Dictionary defines photosynthesis as...

The first sentence violates the rule against "of" constructions ("The definition of photosynthesis") and blandly tells us what the definition is. In the second sentence, the dictionary defines photosynthesis.

Given my long-running battle again citing dictionaries in college papers, I am still not entirely happy with the second sentence. But at least it is more concise than the original.

6. Avoid to be constructions.

To be verbs (am/are/is, was/were) have their place. All too often, though, they are associated with passive voice or with awkward, wordy constructions.

In several of the revisions above, I have followed the rule against to be constructions. For example, I replaced

  • "there are" with "frogs squirt"
  • "the decision was" with "the president announced"
  • "the definition is" with "The American Heritage Dictionary defines"

In each case, I avoided to be by first changing the subject of a sentence or clause. Apply the same strategy in revising this sentence:

The construction of the new station is planned for 2009.

If you wanted to make a city the doer, you could write:

London will build the new station in 2009.

On the other hand, you don't have to change the subject to avoid a to be construction. Consider this example:

John Wilkes Booth was the man who shot Lincoln.

Here, we already have a human subject. So, we need only shift the dynamic verb shot to a more prominent position:

John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln.

7. Finally: revise your work carefully, looking for opportunities to make your writing more concise.

Most of us, as we write a first draft, are too busy getting our thoughts on paper to worry about concision. I wouldn't have it any other way. Once you have set out your points, though, go back over your paper. As you revise the content and combine sentences, you can eliminate wordiness and produce a concise and polished final draft.

Remember, Concision Adds Up

Many of these examples may seem trivial, but removing two or three words from every sentence can add paragraphs' worth of space to a paper. Or, to look at it another way, one wordy sentence may not be too bad, but several dozen are a problem, and the best way to make a paper concise is to work on each sentence.

Try One on Your Own!

How would you make this paragraph more concise?

There was a Supreme Court case called Whitney v. California in 1925. In Whitney v. California, Charlotte Anita Whitney was convicted under California's Criminal Syndicalism Act. According to this California state law, "criminal syndicalism" was any doctrine or belief system advocating or supporting crime, sabotage, or other unlawful means of accomplishing a change in industrial ownership. Whitney was found to have violated the law by illegally organizing and assisting in organizing the Communist Labor Party of California, which aimed to teach the idea of criminal syndicalism. She maintained that her involvement was aimed at peaceable means and not violence, but the jury found against her on this point, so it was not at issue in her appeal.

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