“There is one art—to omit . . . if I knew how to omit, I would ask no other knowledge.”
—Robert Louis Stevenson
The assertion that less is more is debatable—time, love, and money, for instance—but it is often true when it comes to writing.
Have you ever started reading an article or book and found yourself instantly bored or frustrated? Did you find yourself needing to reread long sentences or paragraphs to grasp their meaning?
Many authors struggle with writing concisely, but here are a few proven strategies for improving the quality of your writing and keeping your readers engaged.
Quality over Quantity
In an effort to get the point across, writers often overstate their case. They use flowery words or redundant phrases to emphasize what should be stated simply.
While using fewer words can help, writing concisely isn’t as much about quantity as it is about quality. What matters most is using better words—words that convey meaning. Use stronger, more effective words and, invariably, fewer words will result.
Choose Descriptive Nouns and Stronger Verbs
Nouns are stationary and often require long strings of adjectives to embellish them. Writers can eliminate some of these adjectives by using more descriptive nouns: think spaniel instead of dog or warehouse instead of building.
Another word-cutting tactic is to use specific action verbs in place of nouns or noun clauses, creating more movement in your writing and sparking readers’ interest.
The department’s investigation of the crime took several weeks.
could be changed to this:
The department investigated the crime for several weeks.
The townspeople are hoping that city hall comes to a decision about the sidewalks soon.
is better like this:
The townspeople hope that city hall decides about the sidewalks soon.
Some of the fashion world’s current trends are fringe, plaid, and dark denim.
is stronger when written like this:
Fringe, plaid, and dark denim are trending in the fashion world.
This last example leads to another consideration for concise writing.Writers can reduce their need for adjectives by using more descriptive nouns: think spaniel instead of dog or warehouse instead of building. Click To Tweet
The adjective current in the last example is redundant when using the word trend. Our colloquial language is filled with such redundancies that slip by unnoticed.
- Ask a question—What could you ask other than a question? Instead of saying, “I asked her a question about the event,” simply say, “I asked her about the event.”
- False pretense—Pretense implies falsity. “He was lured to the meeting on the
falsepretense of winning a prize.”
- End result—If it’s a result, it comes at the end. Cut the word end for the same meaning.
Other common redundancies include plan ahead, still remains, fewer in number, past history, and after having. Once you begin looking, you will see redundant phrases everywhere. Many style guides include lists of redundant phrases. For example, The Chicago Manual of Style dictates deleting the word of from idioms such as off of, outside of, all of, etc. (CMOS 5.250).
Finally, don’t forget to run spell-check in your Word document. Microsoft Office 365 automatically points out many common redundancies and offers suggestions for concise wording.
Use Transitional Words and Phrases
Another technique for trimming words and strengthening a piece of writing is to improve your transitions.
Transitional phrases introduce, compare, qualify, intensify, and conclude your points, defining the various sections of your content and serving as a road map of sorts. A carefully chosen transitional word and phrase will help your readers follow your train of thought, saving time—and words—spent explaining yourself.
Ensure that your transitions fit logically within the context of your writing. For example, you can say, finally or in conclusion only at the end of a section, and while this seems obvious, some transitional words are more subtly nuanced and require more care.
To explore transitional phrases in more detail, you can search the subject online. Many universities have online writing centers with exhaustive lists on this topic. For example, the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University has an excellent resource page for transitional devices.Writing concisely is like reducing a sauce. You begin with a quality base and then, adding heat and time, cut its volume in half. The initial ideas remain, but their volume is condensed and made richer and more complex. Click To Tweet
While the exact number of words a picture is worth is arguable, the ratio undoubtedly exceeds 1:1. The use of analogies and imagery in your writing can help readers visualize your topic and is one final method for using fewer and better words.
Think of it this way: Writing concisely is like reducing a sauce. You begin with a quality base and then, adding heat and time, cut its volume in half. The initial ideas remain, but their volume is condensed and made richer and more complex.
In writing, the heat is the deliberate paring down of words until only what is needed remains. The time is, well, time.
“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.”
—Henry David Thoreau
Writing concisely requires patience, intentionality, and practice. Turn the methods explained above into habit and you’ll go far in perfecting your craft.
If you believe your articles, books, or promotional materials can be reduced to shorter, richer lengths, but you aren’t sure how to achieve it, the Scribe Source can help. Find out more about our editing services today.
About the Author
Reared by an English-teacher father, Kriste was diagramming sentences, learning obscure etymologies, and memorizing lists of prepositions at an early age. She is hardworking and thorough and specializes in curriculum editing, manuscript development, and Shakespearean insults. Kriste joined the Scribe Source team in 2017.