Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

14.2: Keeping It Concise

  • Page ID
    27134
  • Audio Version (June 2020):

    Why is it important to be concise?

    As we develop our ideas in a draft, we are likely to repeat the same point in different phrases and sentences. In drafting, we are still thinking our ideas out and searching for the best way to articulate it. However, readers often don't want to read all those versions of the same thing. If we can cut out repetition in the final version, we can create a more lively, interesting, and focused piece. Cutting out excess wordiness can help make space for new, related ideas and a stronger argument. 

    A young Asian person rolling their eyes, looking bored.
    Readers roll their eyes when writers go on and on. "Eye Roll" by Jaysin Trevino on Flickr is licensed CC BY 2.0.

    A general rule to go by is that every word and sentence should be doing some significant work for the paper as a whole. Sometimes that work is more to provide pleasure than meaning—we needn’t ruthlessly eliminate every flourish—but each phrase in the final version should add something unique to the paper.

    Of course, we may be tempted to add padding to our writing to meet the length criteria for an assignment. But such padding will be tedious for readers, including the instructor.  Often, instructors require a certain word count because they can't imagine a shorter piece of writing meeting the goals of the assignment.  If our writing isn't long enough yet, a good first move is to go back to the assignment description and see if there's anything we haven't fully addressed.

    Michael Harvey1 notes that sometimes we may be reluctant to write concisely because it makes us feel more vulnerable.  Wordiness may seem to add to our academic credibility, and it can cover over areas of uncertainty.  Harvey writes,

    [M]any of us are afraid of writing concisely because doing so can make us feel exposed. Concision leaves us fewer words to hide behind. Our insights and ideas might appear puny stripped of those inessential words, phrases, and sentences in which we rough them out. We might even wonder, were we to cut out the fat, would anything be left? 

    As writers, we may need encouragement from peers and teachers to gradually gain confidence and trust that our ideas, even in their barest, simplest forms, are worthwhile. Others will take our writing seriously when it is clear and substantive.

    Strategies for eliminating wordiness

    It's best to wait until the final stage of the revision process to look for wordiness.  (For more on how to prioritize, see Chapter 11: The Writing Process.) Then, we can try the strategies below. The more we do this, the more it will become second nature.

    1. Look for words and phrases that you can cut entirely. Some bits may be redundant or meaningless, as in the following phrases, where the italicized words can be cut:
      • each and every
      • unexpected surprise
      • predictions about the future
      • very unique
      • certain factors
      • slightly terrifying
    2. Look for opportunities to replace longer phrases with shorter phrases or words. For example, “the way in which” can often be replaced by “how” and “despite the fact that” can usually be replaced by “although.” Strong, precise verbs can often replace bloated phrases. Consider this example: “The goal of Alexander the Great was to create a united empire across a vast distance.” And compare it to this: “Alexander the Great sought to unite a vast empire.”
    3. Try to rearrange sentences or passages to make them shorter and livelier. Williams and Bizup2 recommend changing negatives to affirmatives. Consider the negatives in this sentence: “School nurses often do not notice if a young schoolchild does not have adequate food at home.” You could more concisely and clearly write, “School nurses rarely notice if a young schoolchild lacks adequate food at home.” It says the same thing, but is much easier to read which makes for a happier and more engaged reader.
    4. Good parallelism can also help us write shorter text that better conveys our thinking. For example, Stacy Schiff writes this in her best-selling biography of Cleopatra3:

      A goddess as a child, a queen at eighteen, a celebrity soon thereafter, she was an object of speculation and veneration, gossip and legend, even in her own time.

      Imagine if, instead, Schiff wrote this:

      Cleopatra was seen as divine when she was a child. She became the sovereign ruler at eighteen, and she became well known throughout the ancient world early in her reign. People speculated about her, worshipped her, gossiped about her, and told legends about her, even in her own time.

      The second version says the same thing, but the extra words tend to obscure Schiff’s point. The original (“goddess as a child, queen at eighteen, celebrity soon thereafter”) uses parallelism to vividly convey the dramatic shifts in Cleopatra’s roles and her prominence in the ancient world. See 13.10: Parallelism for more on how to create parallel structure.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Edit these passages for concision, using the three moves described above. Be sure to preserve all of the meaning contained in the original.
    1. Each and every student enrolled in our educational institutions deserves and is entitled to competent instruction in all of the key academic areas of study. No student should be without ample time and help in mastering such basic skills.
    2. If you really have no choice in regards to avoiding a long and extended bureaucratic process in making your complaint, it is very important that you write down and document every aspect of the case for use by all of the parties involved in the process.

    Attributions

    Adapted by Anna Mills from Writing in College: From Competence to Excellence by Amy Guptill, published by Open SUNY Textbooks, licensed CC BY NC SA 4.0.

    References

    1Michael Harvey, The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2003), 1.

    2Williams and Bizup, Style, 130.

    3Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra: A Life (Boston, MA: Back Bay Books, 2011), 1.