Sidebar: Concision

At some point, many writers hear the critique “your writing is too wordy” or “make your writing more concise.” Although most people can easily recognize “wordiness,” writing concisely (or editing for concision) can be difficult, because it takes time and calls for a broad vocabulary. Despite these concerns, this kind of writing and editing is worth doing because readers respond more positively to concise writing—just ask anyone who’s ever read a document that takes ten pages to convey what could have been said in two.

Fortunately, concision can become a habit, which means that the more you practice it, the more natural it will feel, and the easier it will become. This sidebar will cover the problems that make writing feel wordy, and provide some strategies for writing more concisely.

Repetition and padding

We call writing wordy when it repeats old information without adding new information to it or when it uses words that don’t add to the meaning of the sentence.

For example, this next passage combines both useless repetition and empty words; the revision eliminates both:

A) Various improvements in productivity basically depend first and foremost on certain fundamental factors that generally involve psychology more than any kind of particular technology.

B) Productivity rises when we improve not just machines but the minds of those who operate them.

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Notice that the second sentence follows our guidelines for characters< and actions<: although these lessons don’t focus on concision, following their principles will almost always make writing more concise.

In addition to using a familiar character (“productivity”) and action (“rises”), the second sentence is much clearer because it gets rid of a lot of words that act as filler in the first sentence: various, basically, first and foremost, certain, generally, particular. What makes these words filler is that none of them contribute to the meaning of the sentence or convey new information.

Here are some typical filler words that you can usually cut:

some   various   specific   general   simply   just   mostly   basically   particular   actually   really

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English also has some words that often show up in pairs, but which don’t need to be expressed in more than one word. Here are examples of redundant pairs, one of which you can always cut:

fully and completely
true and accurate
hopes and desires / hopes and dreams
hope and trust
each and every
completely unique
any and all
basic and fundamental
various and sundry
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Decomposed Meaning

To decompose meaning is to take an idea that can be expressed in one word and spread that idea out over several words. For example, if someone were to describe another person as “the female offspring of my matrilineal grandmother,” that would be a decomposed version of “my aunt” or “my mother’s sister.”

We read this kind of writing every day. For instance, the sentence:

You did not remember to perform the various operations necessary in order to find and correct any potential errors.

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could read:

You did not double-check your data.

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The first sentence breaks down the meaning of “data” and “double-check” into pieces by spreading the meaning across many words. The shorter sentence uses one or two words, which is almost always more vivid.

Implied Meaning

Another kind of wordiness states what other words already imply. Compare these two sentences:

A) Imagine someone trying to learn the laws and mechanical procedures needed to successfully operate a car.

B) Imagine learning to drive.

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The word “learning” implies “trying.” Similarly, the idea behind the phrase “learning the laws and mechanical procedures needed to successfully operate a car” should be implicit in “learning to drive.” So if we cut what readers can infer, we get something more concise and more vivid.

The key to concision, though, isn’t always about making sentences short. Compare the following two examples:

A) Write directly.

B) Make important characters subjects and make their verbs specific actions.

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Sentence A isn’t specific enough to be useful, but sentence B provides the information necessary to carry out the task at hand. Concision isn’t helpful when it comes at the expense of a sentence’s meaning, so when you edit for wordiness, check to make sure that you haven’t edited away important details.

One way to check for wordiness is to read your work aloud. Beginning writers often end up with wordy prose because they think it sounds “scholarly” or “professional,” but it’s hard to imagine anyone saying “I’d like to introduce you to the female offspring of my matrilineal grandmother” rather than “I’d like to introduce you to my aunt” or “Tina is my mom’s sister” in a conversation. If you can’t imagine yourself saying something you’ve written to one of your readers in conversation, edit it for concision.