Writing Concisely

The basic rule for strong academic writing is to say everything relevant in as few words as possible. “Instant prose” can come from being forced to write papers of a particular length or being told that a paragraph must always contain exactly five sentences. This habit leads to the opposite of conciseness—wordiness in sentences and redundancy in paragraphs, which can confuse the reader and cloud your ideas.

To Write More Concisely, Follow These Suggestions:

  • Write what you mean—nothing more and nothing less.

  • Trust and respect yourself as a writer enough to not overstate what you mean.

  • Study sentences in your first draft to see what you can delete without losing meaning.

  • Read each paragraph aloud. Be sure that all sentences support the topic sentence.

  • Keep concrete, specific examples. Cut out extra words, empty phrases, weak qualifiers, negative constructions, and unnecessary “to be” verbs. (See examples below.)

Also, watch for sentences and clauses beginning with it is, this is, and there are.

Examples Of Wordy Sentences—And Concise Revisions:

Try to eliminate extra words, especially at the beginning of sentences, and choose the more specific word:

Wordy Concise

However, it must be remembered that Ruth’s marriage could have positive effects on Naomi’s situation.

Ruth’s marriage, however, will also provide security for Naomi.

In high school, where I had the opportunity for three years of working with the student government, I realized how significantly a person’s enthusiasm can be destroyed merely by the attitudes of his superiors.

In high school, during three years on the student council, I saw students’ enthusiasm destroyed by insecure teachers and cynical administrators.

The economic situation of Anne Moody was also a crucial factor in the formation of her character.

Anne Moody’s poverty also helped form her character.

Frequently, a chapter in a book reveals to the reader the main point that the author desires to bring out during the course of the chapter.

A chapter’s title often reveals its thesis.

Watch for weak intensifiers and qualifiers; sentences are more forceful without them.

Notice how much clearer the following sentences are without the words in brackets:

  1. We found the proposal [quite] feasible.
  2. The remark, though unkind, was [entirely] accurate.
  3. The scene was [extremely] typical.
  4. That behavior is [fairly] unique for such an intelligent animal.
  5. The first line [definitely] establishes that the father had been drinking.

Make sure that sentences are specific and concrete in their conclusions instead of raising more questions:

Wordy Concise

IN both Orwell’s and Baldwin’s essays, the feeling of white supremacy is very important. (This raises the questions: How is it important? Why?)

Both Orwell and Baldwin trace the consequences of white supremacy.
(This revision states its point conclusively.)

 Avoid unnecessary use of “to be” verbs:

Wordy Concise

The scene is taking place at night, in front of the capitol building.

The scene takes place at night, in front of the capitol building.

The friar is knowledgeable about Juliet being alive.

The friar knows that Juliet is alive.

There are two pine trees which are growing behind this house.

Two pine trees grow behind this house.

Look out for redundant words and phrases:

Wordy Concise

Any student could randomly sit anywhere.

Students could sit anywhere. (If they could sit “anywhere,” seating was clearly “random.”)

Change negative constructions into positive constructions:

Wordy Concise

Housing for married students is not unworthy of consideration.

Housing for married students is worthy of consideration.

Simplify, simplify, simplify:

Wordy Concise

The Book of Ruth was probably written in the fifth century B.C. It was a time when women were considered the property of men.

The Book of Ruth was probably written in the fifth century B.C., when women were considered the property of men.

This is a quote from Black Elk’s autobiography that discloses his prophetic powers.

This quote from Black Elk’s autobiography discloses his prophetic powers.

It is frequently considered that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most puzzling play.

Hamlet is frequently considered Shakespeare’s most puzzling play.

Adapted from Barnet, Sylvan and Marcia Stubbs. Barnett and Stubbs Practical Guide to Writing. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1980.