8 Steps to More Concise Writing

By Mark Nichol

You know you must streamline your writing, but the devil’s in the details. Here are some specifics about what to look for:

1. Remove Redundancy

Avoid double-teaming terms like “a period of one week,” “end result,” “free gift,” and “personal opinion.” Watch for phrases that echo the quality in question: “oval in shape,” “larger in size,” “shorter in duration,” and the like. Omit redundant words that are already implied as part of an abbreviated term, such as machine in “ATM machine.”

2. Reduce Phrases to Words

Replace a descriptive phrase following a noun with a one-word adjective that precedes the noun: “People who experienced at traveling know better than to label their luggage,” for example, can be revised to “Experienced travelers know better than to label their luggage.

A modifying phrase, similarly, can be reduced to a simple adverb: “Sympathizing with her concerns, he nodded in response to her complaint,” for instance, is more concisely expressed as “He nodded sympathetically in response to her complaint.”

Delete extraneous phrases such as “which is” and “who were,” as shown here: “We drove down Lombard Street, which is considered the crookedest street in the world” is easily simplified to “We drove down Lombard Street, considered the crookedest street in the world.”

3. Omit Gratuitous Intensifiers and Qualifiers

Use adverbs that intensify or qualify in moderation: “They had an extremely unpleasant experience” isn’t accurate unless a subsequent explanation justifies the intensifier extremely, and “I was somewhat taken aback” isn’t necessarily an improvement on “I was taken aback.”

4. Expunge Expletives

“There are” or “there is” is a weak way to start a sentence. “There is a telling passage toward the end of the story” lacks the focus of (and the more vivid verb in) the sentence “A telling passage occurs near the end of the essay.”

5. Negate Nominalizations

“The report gave an analysis of the accident” uses a phrase where a single word suffices. (This is known as a nominalization, or smothering a verb.) When you see a “(verb) a/an (noun)” construction, convert the noun into a verb and replace the phrase with it. In this case, “The report analyzed the accident” is the more concise result. As with deletion of expletives, a stronger verb is an additional benefit.

6. Delete Superfluous Phrases

“At the present time,” “for all intents and purposes,” and “in the event that” are just a few of many meaningless phrases that clutter sentences. Trim them to tighten your writing.

7. Avoid Cliches

Likewise, “face the music,” “litmus test,” “tried and true” and other timeworn phrases add nothing to your writing but words; they’re useful only for padding a word count, but instructors and editors (and readers) will notice.

8. Eschew Euphemisms

Generally, words that disguise concepts degrade language, which is all about expressing, not repressing, meaning. For example, “collateral damage,” in reference to warfare (and, by extension, to all interpersonal relationships), invites derision. However, use of some euphemisms, such as those for human disabilities, is a well-meaning effort to preserve the dignity of the disabled, though some people argue that such cosmetic wording actually harms people by diminishing the seriousness of their condition, or that it is for the benefit not of the disabled but of people who would rather not be reminded of the disabled.

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21 Responses to “8 Steps to More Concise Writing”

  • Desolie

    Excellent advice, Mark.

    It’s easy to write the way ‘everyone else’ writes without stopping to see if there’s a simpler way to say something.

    Having a mental picture of my ideal reader helps my writing: I want to make it as easy as possible for them to understand my message.

  • Ranjith (SR) | A light hearted talk

    I do follow most of the things that might make what I write less concise but still I like it that way.
    – Ranjith

  • Rebecca

    Thank you for the reminder about redundancy. I read, re-read, and edit my writing until I’m satisfied all unnecessary words are deleted.

  • Stephanie

    Fantastic tips, proving once again the usefulness of this blog!

    I have to disagree with the example in #4, though – “occurs” seems awkward and too corporate for a “telling passage.” But it’s hard to tell out of context.

  • Roberta B.

    Great list! However, I agree with Stephanie on #4. Not only is “occurs” a weak verb, the passive voice keeps it weak. Maybe say: “A telling passage near the end of the story binds together all of the threads”…….or something like that.

  • shirley in berkeley

    Remember when “At this point . . . ” was understood to mean, “At this point in time . . . ,” and people didn’t add feel they had to add “IN TIME” every time? (Drives me nuts.)

  • David

    I actually like the “occurs” in #4, personally. “ATM machine” and PIN number” drive me crazy, and we should all be able to agree and concur that people everywhere in all places should stamp out and do away with redundancy!

  • Lesley

    I disagree with both “The report gave an analysis of the accident” and “The report analyzed the accident” because it is not the report that does the anlayzing, it is a person who then records that analysis in a report.

  • Bob Kaplan

    Great advice if all you care about is simply reducing your word count. But if you want your prose to have a poetic or lyrical quality, the most concise way of writing isn’t necessarily the best.

    Gratuitous words intensifiers and qualifiers can help establish the tone in humorous writing, as can euphemisms. Even cliches have their use in this regard.

    Still, this is a useful guideline, particularly items 1, 4, and 7.

  • Paul

    Aren’t some of these just reworked versions of Orwell’s rules, which were criticized only a few days ago?

  • Mark Nichol

    Bob:

    Following these guidelines does not discourage poetic or lyrical writing. They simply help writers craft vivid, active, robust prose. Nor am I suggesting that every one must be followed in every piece of writing. Of course allowances should be made for humorous writing.

  • Mark Nichol

    Paul:

    I don’t think these guidelines are as severe as Orwell’s. Nor, as I mentioned to Bob, are they strictures to be observed in all cases. I’m merely pointing out specific elements of writing that weaken prose if they are routinely tolerated.

  • Robyn

    As a technical writer, I’m less concerned about poetic or lyrical writing. Tech writers are some of the worst offenders when it comes to adding useless gobbledygook (that’s a technical term)!

    My practice is to dedicate my first edit to accuracy and consistency, and my second to eradicating cliches, unnecessary modifiers, redundancies, etc. This article provides a great list of the common enemies of clarity. Thanks!

  • Geoffrey Talbot – Seven Creative Sentences

    Great Stuff Mark,

    I write a seven sentence daily blog (sevensentences.com) where brevity and concision are things to be valued. Limiting yourself to a word or sentence count and constantly practicing is a great way to develop this skill.

    My biggest problem is qualifiers. For me this lessons the impact of a sentence, like telling a girl she is “kind of” beautiful. Here in lies the power of reading it over the next day.

    The mood you are in when you begin writing is also important. For me deadlines and constraints enhance the directness of my prose and actually help.

    Knowing what works for you is the key.

  • Constant Writer

    Conciseness is always the way to go no matter what you’re writing. With academic papers, it’s always been very easy for me to be concise, but in my fiction, I tend to ramble. Not as much in the prose, but the dialogue. I think every one of my characters constantly breaks all of those tips when speaking because that’s how people speak. It’s not eloquent and it’s not rehearsed. But even then, there’s always room to tighten up the language in both the prose and the dialogue in the revision process.

  • Ian

    These are good reminders towards writing that will compel the reader to turn the page.
    But, of course, rules are not rigid. I don’t disagree with #4 but Alan Paton did not just start a sentence, he started one of the world’s great novels with, “There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills.”

  • Oliver Lawrence

    Tricky business, this simplification. If getting the nuances and implications just right is important, then removing linguistic machinery can actually add room for misinterpretation.

    With
    “We drove down Lombard Street, which is considered…”,
    as soon as we get to “considered”, we know that the next part of the sentence will be about the street, in some way.

    Yet with
    “We drove down Lombard Street, considered…”,
    at this point we don’t yet know whether “considered” is a participle referring to Lombard Street or an active verb referring to “We”: the sentence could legitimately continue “… whether to risk the one-way system, then gave up and headed off to Nigel’s house”.

    Leaving wrong pathways open to the reader is likely to make them start off down one of them at some point, which will make them stop and backtrack when they realize they have erred – which does not make for an effective text, especially if the writer’s aim is to persuade or sell.

    It’s a tricky old business is this language lark.

  • Judy

    The part about the ‘The report analyzes the accident’. The “report” is the result, so in my opinion, it should be written as follows: The accident analysis is in the report.

  • Robin

    HIV virus makes me crazy. What do people think the V in HIV is?

    Thanks for letting me vent.

  • Florence Hupf

    Off the subject, but just curious: Do you think that in our lifetimes we will ever hear the likes of “You guys” done away with? Drives me crazy, as even in some high-end restaurants, we hear servers ask, “What would you guys like to have to drink?” Argghhh!

  • JW

    Florence, I don’t think we’ll be eradicating “you guys” anytime soon. English lacks a second-person plural pronoun, so people will try to make due with constructions such as “you guys”, “you people”, “you all” or even “y’all”. Unless we manage to resurrect “thou” as a singular pronoun, these annoying attempts at a plural will remain for disambiguation.

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