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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—you needn’t ruthlessly eliminate every rhetorical flourish—but everything in the final version should add something unique to the paper. As with clarity, the benefits of concision are intellectual as well as stylistic: revising for concision forces writers to make deliberate decisions about the claims they want to make and their reasons for making them.
Michael Harvey1 notes that fluffy, wordy prose does not necessarily result from an underdeveloped writing process. Sometimes it reflects the context of academic writing:
[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? It’s no wonder, then, that many students make little attempt to be concise—[and] may, in fact, go out of their way not to be … .
Effortful thinking is something most people naturally try to avoid most of the time. It’s both arduous and anxiety-provoking to go beyond existing knowledge and assumptions to venture into unknown territory. In some ways, too, the general structure of education conditions students to approach papers as blanks to be filled rather than open-ended problems to explore. When students actively avoid concision, it’s often because they want to avoid the hard thinking concision requires, they assume that writing is all about expressing opinions rather than undertaking a rigorous thought process, or they fear that they can’t adequately perform and communicate an ambitious analysis.
One of the first things you will learn about writing in college is that you have to be concise. It doesn’t matter whether the paper is two pages or ten; concision is key. If you start to lose your reader, expect a bad grade. Professors want to see how well you can argue a point and this includes how gracefully the paper flows as well as how long the reader’s attention is kept. If you can incorporate concision, cohesion and grace into each paper you write, then good grades are sure to follow.
Many writing guides describe editing strategies that produce a vivid, satisfying concision.2 Most of the advice boils down to three key moves:
- Look for words and phrases that you can cut entirely. Look for bits that are redundant: (“each and every,” “unexpected surprise,” “predictions about the future”), meaningless (“very unique,” “certain factors,” “slightly terrifying”), or clichéd (“as far as the eye can see,” or “long march of time”).
- 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.”
- Try to rearrange sentences or passages to make them shorter and livelier. Williams and Bizup3 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.
Good parallelism can also help you write shorter text that better conveys your thinking. For example, Stacy Schiff writes this in her best-selling biography of Cleopatra4:
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”) effectively uses parallelism to vividly convey the dramatic shifts in Cleopatra’s roles and her prominence in the ancient world.
1Michael Harvey, The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2003), 1.
2 Especially, Williams, Harvey, and Lanham.
3Williams and Bizup, Style, 130.
4Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra: A Life (Boston, MA: Back Bay Books, 2011), 1.