How to write concisely, yet well

by jwisinski

To be a successful writer, you should learn to write concisely. Here's a definition of concise writing, along with tips on writing concisely.

I teach writing at the university level, and I teach my students to write concisely.

By "concise" I don't necessarily mean "short." The length of whatever you're writing will depend on the scope of your topic; sometimes you'll need to write just 100 words, other times you might write 10,000.

But good writing expresses thoughts using the fewest words reasonably possible. That's concise writing.

Some writers tend to use more words than necessary to express a thought. Pare away redundant words. You can actually say more with fewer words, because the fewer words you need to express a thought, the more ideas you can squeeze in.

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Examples of concise writing

If you doubt the need for concise writing, consider these examples

For good examples of concise writing, listen to radio or television news reports. Both mediums have just a short time to tell a story, forcing writers to write succinctly, even tersely.

News announcers typically speak at a rate of about 170 to 180 words per minutes, and on average, the typical TV news story is about a minute and 30 seconds. That gives TV news writers only about 250 to 270 words to tell a story.

Radio broadcasters have it even tougher; the average radio news story runs 20 to 30 seconds, meaning the newscaster must tell the story in just 60 to 70 words. So broadcast writers learn to write concisely, yet clearly.

As another example of the value of concise writing, consider some common proverbs that are expressed in long, complicated sentences. See if you can determine the original adage. The answers are below.

1. A condition characterized by tardiness is more desirable than one that is systematically marked by eternal absenteeism.

2. In the absence of the feline race, certain small rodents will give themselves up to various pleasures.

3. It is fruitless to attempt to indoctrinate a superannuated canine with innovative maneuvers.

4. Illegal transgression has no remuneration for its perpetrators.

The answers are:

1. Better late than never.

2. When the cat’s away, the mice will play.

3. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

4. Crime does not pay.

You can see the value of using short words and concise sentences. Only three words in these four well-known proverbs contain more than one syllable, yet the thoughts contained in them have lasted scores of years. If the third proverb really read, " It is fruitless to attempt to indoctrinate a superannuated canine with innovative maneuvers" how long would people remember that? But everyone remembers "You can't teach an old dog new tricks."

Tips for writing concisely

Here are a few ideas to help you trim your writing to its most concise level.
  • Eliminate excess prepositional phrases

Prepositional phrases often add nothing to a story. Many just complicate sentences. For example, in the previous sentence I could have written, "Many of them just complicate sentences." What does "of them" add to the sentence? The sentence is understandable without that useless phrase, so I saved two words.

Here is a partial list of prepositions:

about, after, along, around, at, before, below, between,
for, from, in, inside, into, of, over, through, to, under

Search your story for these words; you may find you can eliminate the phrases they introduce with no change in meaning.

  • Watch out for excessive adjectives and adverbs

Journalists learn to strike almost all adjectives and adverbs from their writing because using them may imply a meaning that may not have been there in the incident or event they're reporting. For example, a well-trained journalist wouldn't write, "The mayor stridently said he wouldn't support a tax increase." Good journalists know they shouldn't imply a meaning to the mayor's words that may or may not be there.

Instead, the journalist would say, "The mayor said he wouldn't support a tax increase." Although your story or book may not be journalistic in nature, you can learn from these trained writers to trim unnecessary, and perhaps misleading, words.

  • Use active voice, not passive voice

In active voice, the subject is doing the acting. In passive voice, the subject is being acted on. Here are a couple of examples:

     Passive: The tax increase was approved by the commissioners.

     Active: Commissioners approved the tax increase.

     Passive: Our burgers are enjoyed by kids of all ages.

     Active: Kids of all ages enjoy our burgers.

Notice how active voice shortens sentences. In the first example, I saved three words; in the second, two words. That's conciseness.

Furthermore, active voice gives sentences "punch." It makes writing sound more direct and is easier to understand. Excessive use of passive voice makes weak writing. 

  • Cut words that add nothing

You may have heard the advice to "write as you speak." Generally, that's good advice. Good writing is unpretentious, just like our speech. We don't say, "The weather looks like rain today." We say, "It looks like rain today." Similarly, most writing should be natural and informal.

The snag with this advice, good as it usually is, is that our conversation is laced with filler words that don't add anything to our meaning. Probably we do this because our minds think faster than we can talk; we unconsciously add those extra words to let our mouths catch up to our brains.

Here are a few examples of meaningless words and phrases I've collected from my university students.

            Mickey Mantle was such a great baseball player

            This product doesn’t cause any burning sensations

            He's a good man, on and off of the court

            You can find information online at anytime

Now the edited versions:

            Mickey Mantle was a great baseball player (one fewer word)

            This product doesn’t burn (four fewer words)

            He's a good man, on and off the court (one fewer word)

            You can find information online anytime (one fewer word)

Notice I didn't change the meaning of any sentence; I just cut worthless words.

  • Replace weak verbs with strong ones

You’ll remember the concept of “helping” or “linking” verbs from high school English. These verbs carry no real meaning. Replace them with more forceful verbs.

Here is a partial list of helping verbs to avoid:

am, are, be, been, can, could, had, has,
, is, shall, should, was, were, will, would

The negative side of these verbs—cannot, shouldn’t, won't, etc.—are also weak. Likewise for contractions, such as I’m, you’re, can't, etc.

You can’t always avoid using these weak verbs. (I used one in the preceding sentence.) But when possible substitute a stronger verb.

Doing so will not only make your writing more concise by cutting words, it will add additional punch to your writing, making it stronger. Here’s an example: “Smith was an excellent student in high school." Avoid the weak verb was by writing: “Smith excelled academically in high school." We're saving two words and writing a stronger sentence, too.

How to tell if your writing is concise

Concise writing uses short words, sentences, and paragraphs.

If your word processing program contains a grammar checker, run your story through it. The grammar checker will not only point out ungrammatical sentences, but will tell you your story's readability. Readability statistics may include the following items:

  • Number of sentences per paragraph

  • Number of words per sentence

  • Number of characters per word

  • Percentage of passive sentences

Although the following numbers may be different depending on your audience, these are good guidelines to follow.

  • Sentences per paragraph should be five or less.

  • Words per sentence should be between 13 and 17.

  • Characters per word should be five or less.

  • Passive sentences should be under 15 percent.


Updated: 01/17/2014, jwisinski
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AbbyFitz on 01/17/2014

This is an excellent English refresher course. Many writers, myself included, can improve our writing.

ologsinquito on 01/17/2014

Excellent advice delivered in a very concise article. I'm pinning this to My Online Writing board.

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