10 Techniques for More Precise Writing

By Mark Nichol

Here are ten ways to produce more vivid, direct, concise prose by replacing wordy phrases with fewer words and reorganizing sentences. It is not advisable to employ these strategies indiscriminately, but prose will usually be improved by following the recommendations below.

1. Use Active Voice

When a sentence includes be or any other copulative verb, such as is or are, recast the sentence to omit the verb.
Before: “The meeting was seen by us as a ploy to delay the project.”
After: “We saw the meeting as a ploy to delay the project.”

2. Avoid Vague Nouns

Phrases formed around general nouns such as aspect, degree, and situation clutter sentences.
Before: “She is an expert in the area of international relations.”
After: “She is an expert in international relations.”

3. Use Words, Not Their Definitions

Replace explanatory phrases with a single word that encapsulates that explanation.
Before: “The crops also needed to be marketable so that families would be able to sell any yields that exceeded what they personally required.”
After: “The crops also needed to be marketable so that families would be able to sell any surplus.”

4. Avoid Noun Strings

Reorganize sentences to eliminate series of nouns used as adjectives.
Before: “The lack of a secure transfer may hamper computer security incident response efforts.”
After: “The lack of a secure transfer may hamper responses to computer-security incidents.”

5. Convert Nouns to Verbs

When a sentence includes a noun ending in -tion, change the noun to a verb to simplify the sentence.
Before: “They will collaborate in the creation of new guidelines.”
After: “They will collaborate to create new guidelines.”

6. Reduce Verb Phrases to Simple Verbs

Identify the verb buried in a verb phrase and omit the rest of the phrase.
Before: “The results are suggestive of the fact that tampering has occurred.”
After: “The results suggest that tampering has occurred.”

7. Replace Complex Words with Simple Ones

Choose simpler synonyms for multisyllabic words.
Before: “The department will disseminate the forms soon.”
After: “The department will pass out the forms soon.”

8. Avoid Expletives

Don’t start sentences with “There is,” “There are,” or “It is.”
Before: “There are many factors in the product’s failure.”
After: “Many factors contributed to the product’s failure.”

9. Eliminate Prepositional Phrases

Replace “(noun1) of the (noun2)” phrasing with “(noun2)’s (noun1)” phrasing.
Before: “The decision of the committee is final.”
After: “The committee’s decision is final.”

10. Reduce Wordy Phrases to Single Words

Replace phrases that signal a transition with simple conjunctions, verbs, or other linking words.
Before: Due to the fact that the project is behind schedule, today’s meeting has been postponed.
After: Because the project is behind schedule, today’s meeting has been postponed.

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13 Responses to “10 Techniques for More Precise Writing”

  • John

    George Orwell is back!

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    Great advice!

  • TonyB

    Quote:

    “Here are ten ways to produce more vivid, direct, concise prose by replacing wordy phrases with fewer words and reorganizing sentences.”

    Ouch! Sorry, I couldn’t resist 🙂

    Might I suggest you amend your opening sentence? Two suggestions:

    Here are ten ways to produce more vivid, direct, concise prose by replacing wordy phrases with fewer words, and reorganizing sentences.

    Or (my preference):

    Here are ten ways to produce more vivid, direct, concise prose by reorganizing sentences and replacing wordy phrases with fewer words.

    I love your daily writing hints but it just shows that even the experts get it wrong! What would you call the error above? Dangling modifier?

  • Terry Odell

    My editor pointed out that “one” was a word she’d noticed a lot in the manuscript. I ran a check. 377 uses. In going through to see if some could be eliminated, I replaced a lot of the “one of” phrases with “a” (one of his hands = a hand), which also tightened the writing.

  • Chris

    The last one could be further revised:

    After: “Because the project is behind schedule, today’s meeting has been postponed.”

    After After: “Today’s meeting has been postponed because the project is behind schedule.”

  • Mary

    Oh, those copulative verbs! What’s a mother to do….?

  • Dale A. Wood

    The verbs derived from “to be” are not necessarily “copulative verbs”. The verbs that are derived from “to be” are often auxiliary verbs that are used with other “main” verbs to express things like the progressive mood or the passive voice.

    We also have a problem with writers’ wanting to avoid the passive voice so badly that they do something really bad: they use transitive verbs (those that require an object) in a nontransitive way. The most salient example of this is the verb “to launch”. I won’t even quote an example of that because they are too hideous.

  • Dale A. Wood

    In item #2, there is a problem with different shades of meaning that was overlooked:
    “She is an expert in the area of international relations” means the same thing as “She is an expert in the subject of international relations.”

    An expert in the subject could know everything about the subject – i.e. as a course of study – but be really hideous at doing anything about it. In other words, she could be completely inept at it.

    “She is an expert in international relations” means a lot more. This means that not only does she know all about it, but she can do many things about it successfully. Examples of the latter include the two female Secretaries of State of the United States and the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

    To summarize, there is a significant difference between being an expert in the subject of something, and being an expert who can actually take the bull by the horns and do something about it.
    The first is a good thing, but the second is even better.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oh, section number four is SO good! Thank you.

    One reason for such ghastly expressions as “computer security incident response efforts” it writers and speakers NOT knowing the difference between a noun and and adjective.
    Mr. Nichol called this a “noun string”, and that is true, but what was happening was that the writer thought that he / she was using some adjectives that were not.

    Also, I think that people who write or speak like that have been INNOCULATED against using prepositional phrases. Oh, they might be able to copy a prepositional phrase that they heard, but they are unable to craft and write prepositional phrases of their own. That is part of the craftwork of good writing.

    Mr. Nichol crafted a good prepositional phrase: “to computer-security incidents,” in which it is clear that “computer-security is a hyphenated adjective.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    7. Replace Complex Words with Simple Ones !!

    I think that lots of writers from the British Isles, and maybe from New Zealand, have been brainwashed into thinking that they have to use the polysyllabic word “subsequently” from one of the Romance languages – instead of using a simple phrase like “later on”, “then next”, “and then”, “and following that”, or “caused by that”.

    Also, when it comes to writing such as in the Wikipedia, so many writers use “subsequently” or “eventually” because they are too lazy to do some research to find out the real year or the date. This takes effort: “This happened in 1763, and then 125 years later in 1888…”

  • Mark Nichol

    TonyB:

    I didn’t complete the parallel structure; simply inserting by before “reorganizing sentences” does the trick.

  • John

    @Dale A. Wood, about item #2

    Your skill in analyzing the logical meaning of a sentence is amazing!

    John

  • Randel Allee

    This website is spot on. An excellent command of the language is crucial to concise writing. Synonyms exist, true enough, but similar is not exact. Each word in the English language has a subtle, contextual meaning, choose carefully.
    It tickles me pink when people use “apropos” incorrectly. ‘Apropos’ isn’t as easily used in an English sentence as those that carelessly sling it about tend to believe. Active verbiage is the heart and soul of writing economy. Sloppy writing indicates sloppy thinking. And so on…
    I look forward to reading this website frequently. Very useful to a former investigator/writer that is a bit rusty. Tear up my usage and punctuation anyone? I will thank you for it.

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