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Be Concise - writing guide

EF_Sean 6 / 3,491  
Jan 26, 2009   #1
Be concise. That is, it is always better to say whatever you want to say without using any more words than necessary. Reading takes up valuable time, and readers don't want to waste that time reading things they already know, or worse, reading material that doesn't tell them anything at all.

Conciseness can be achieved in many ways. Often, you can combine sentences so that overlapping information is eliminated. For instance:

I joined my school's debate club. As part of the debate club, I learned to see both sides of every issue.
can be rewritten as:

I joined my school's debate club, where I learned to see both sides of every issue.
The above example also gives you an idea of why conciseness is a virtue. The former doesn't just waste words, it wastes time. If every sentence in an essay were written like the one in the sample, the reader would begin to skim rather than peruse, confident that he could skip clauses or even whole sentences without missing anything important. In short, wordiness trains the reader to disengage with the material he is reading.

Conciseness also dictates that certain wordy phrases always be avoided: "There is," "there was," "It is," and "the fact that" are prime offenders:

There was a movie I wanted to go and see.
I wanted to see a movie

I was stunned by the fact that the politician would lie so brazenly
I was stunned by the politician's brazen lies.

This sort of editing is useful because it puts the key words of the sentence closer together, making the reading of it less tiring. In the last example, the key words are "stunned" "politician," "brazen," and "lie." None of the other words are interesting or conjure up any mental images. The more concise the sentence, then, the more concentrated the interesting material becomes, to the benefit of the writing.

Conciseness often involves eliminating phrases that involve a lot of small words, especially prepositions. Frequently, these may be stock phrases that should always be avoided. Even if they are not stock constructions, they can often be cut down with careful editing, as in the following example, which replaces the clumsy "of the"s with possessive forms:

He grabbed the sword of the prince and swung it at the head of the invader.
He grabbed the prince's sword and swung it at the invader's head.
A search for "conciseness in writing" via Google will find several websites that give a much more comprehensive list of redundant phrases that you should always avoid using.

Conciseness can also be achieved by reducing wordy clauses to a single adjective:

The light, which was very bright, blinded us so that we could not see who was behind it.
The blindingly bright light kept us from seeing who was behind it.
A good way to tighten up your prose generally is to look for nouns that could be used as verbs, especially if your sentence relies on weak verbs, such as "to have," "to do," or "to be."

The hero has a dedication to helping others, and is constantly offering protection to the innocent.
Dedicated to helping others, the hero constantly protects the innocent.
Find out more about avoiding forms of "to be."

Finally, many euphemisms are wordier than plain speaking, which is a good reason to avoid them. So, for instance, instead of saying that someone "passed away," say that they "died." You convey the same meaning with one less word, and the sort of people who might be offended by the substitution are not the sort of people you should be writing for.

Home / Grammar, Usage / Be Concise - writing guide
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