Conciseness

Professional Writer and Editor

Just because a sentence or paragraph is long does not necessarily mean that it is wordy, nor does the fact that a sentence is short mean that it is necessarily concise. To write concisely means to eliminate words that aren’t necessary because they don’t add anything to the meaning of a sentence.

Avoid Unnecessary Repetition

It is often important, and even necessary, to repeat main ideas and points when writing in order to keep the interest of the reader and to emphasize significant ideas. Repetition is also helpful in connecting a sentence with the one that precedes it for cohesion.

Unnecessary repetition, on the other hand, wastes readers’ time and energy, causes writing to be needlessly wordy, and can irritate rather than aid readers. When the repetition of a word or phrase is clearly not needed, revise the sentence.

Not: 

When Les saw the advertisement in the newspaper for the executive accountant position, he decided to apply for the position. Les had worked for his current firm for five years, but he was ready for a new position with a different firm. Les was confident that he would be offered the position if he applied for the position.

But:

When Les saw the advertisement in the newspaper for the executive accountant position, he decided to apply for the job. The young man had worked for his current firm for five years, but he was ready for a new role with a different company. Les was confident that he would be offered the position if he applied for it.

Avoid Redundancy

Being redundant in your writing means using words that could be left out without changing or losing any meaning. Saying that it is 67 degrees in temperature, for example, is redundant because we already know that when we use degrees we are talking about temperature. When you find redundant wording in your writing, revise it.

Not: 

For the summer social she bought a dress that was yellow in color. I’m not sure what the end result of the meetings will be.

But:

For the summer social she bought a yellow dress. I’m not sure what the result of the meetings will be.

Avoid Empty Words and Phrases

Avoid using empty words and phrases, such as using there are or it is at the beginning of a sentence instead of starting with the subject of the sentence. When possible, reword the sentence so that the subject comes at the beginning. Other examples of empty words and phrases are using hedge words such as I believe, in my opinion, it appears, and so forth. It is generally best to simply leave out these phrases, as readers assume that you are sharing your own beliefs, opinions, and the like when you write.

Not: 

There are more than 30 people living in this apartment building.
In my opinion, the best thing that they can do is start over.

But:

More than 30 people live in this apartment building.
The best thing they can do is start over.

Avoid Wordy Phrases and Sentences

In many cases, sentences can be strengthened by replacing wordy verb phrases with the verb alone. Such revisions help the sentence to be more direct and powerful.

Not: 

When you need to make repairs to your appliance, carefully consult the owner’s manual.
Before performing the test on the patients, the doctor made sure to obtain their permission.

But:

When you need to repair your appliance, carefully consult the owner’s manual.
Before testing the patients, the doctor obtained their permission.

Nominalizations are another example of writing that is often overly wordy. A nominalization is a noun that is made from a word that is normally used as a verb, such as preservation from preserve and reliance from rely. Such words are often followed by a form of to be or a prepositional phrase or both, as in the phrase the decision of the board is to. Such constructions are needlessly long.

Not: 

They refused to make alterations to the plans in order to be compliant with the building code.
His management of the business was excellent.

But:

They refused to alter the plans in order to be compliant with the building code.
He managed the business excellently.

Many other common phrases are also needlessly wordy and can be replaced by a shorter phrase or even a single word without losing any meaning. In such cases, the phrases should be revised. Modifying phrases, for example, can often be shortened. Below are some examples of phrases that can be simplified.

Wordy Phrase Concise Phrases

adequate number of

enough

as a matter of fact

in fact

at the present time

now

by means of

by

due to the fact that

because

for the purpose of

for

in a timely manner

on time

in spite of the fact that

despite

over the duration of

during

take into consideration

consider

until such time as

until

When possible, reduce clauses to phrases, and phrases to words.

Avoid Unnecessary Passive Voice

In passive sentences, the subject position is occupied not by the person or thing doing the acting, but rather by the receiver of the action. Sentences that use the passive voice are generally less direct and wordier than those that use active voice. For this reason, it is best to write in active voice when possible (and appropriate).

Not: 

The meeting was initiated by my supervisor.
Yesterday an emergency evacuation was mandated by the mayor.

But:

My supervisor initiated the meeting.
Yesterday the mayor mandated an emergency evacuation.

However, sometimes the passive voice is preferred. When writers want to focus on the action rather than the actor or when the actor is unimportant or unknown, passive constructions are generally best.

Examples: Last week two escaped convicts were captured.
We heard that 30 employees will be laid off next week.

For more information on this topic, see the article “Active and Passive Voice.”

Avoid Unnecessarily Long Sentences

Sentences that are overly long are more difficult to read, especially if the subject matter is complex or if the vocabulary is unfamiliar to the reader. Sentences that are more than about 30 words long can often be divided into shorter sentences that are easier to digest.

Not: 

Over the course of the year, Jerry Brothers Inc. increased their profits by only 3 percent, which was disappointing, but they were able to reduce their overhead by more than 50 percent, so the overall profits for the company nearly tripled during the course of the year.

But:

Over the course of the year, Jerry Brothers Inc. increased their profits by only 3 percent, which was disappointing. On the other hand, they were able to reduce their overhead by more than 50 percent. Consequently, the overall profits for the company nearly tripled during the course of the year.

Choose the Right Word

Writing concisely—and precisely—is primarily a result of careful word choice. When writing, favor precise, descriptive words over vague, less interesting ones. For example, try to avoid vague nouns such as type, thing, kind, and situation; vague adjectives such as nice, good, bad, and a lot; and vague adverbs such as really, very, and totally. Keep a good dictionary and thesaurus at hand for easy reference so that you can find the words that best express your meaning.

Not: 

This situation has turned out to be really bad.
That is exactly the type of thing that is very good for our company.

But:

Unfortunately, the stockholders’ meeting was a dismal failure.
Finding solid companies with which to merge has proven to be an excellent way to expand our market share and increase profits.

Use Specific Nouns

Specific nouns refer to a definite item, rather than a general class of things. Truck, for example, refers to a general class, while a Tundra is specific. Moreover, while abstract nouns refer to ideas such as peace, justice, and beauty, concrete nouns generally refer to tangible, physical objects, such as a house, the mountains, or a hummingbird. Specific, concrete nouns usually express ideas better than general, abstract ones can, so choose specific and concrete words when possible.

Not: 

When Lance entered the race, he believed that he might win with his modified bike.
John was astounded by the beauty of his surroundings.

But:

When Lance entered the Mountain Shore 50-Mile Bike Race, he believed that he might win with his modified High Rider.
John was astounded by the proximity of the rugged mountains, the abundant wildlife and vegetation, and the quiet, meandering brook that ran right outside his cabin door.

Standard Idioms

Idioms are expressions in a particular language that are peculiar to it grammatically (such as the expression She’s at university—without the before university—used in the U.K. and Australia) or expressions that differ from the meaning of the individual words (such as over the hill in the U.S.). Though native speakers of a language do not generally have problems with idiomatic expressions, English speakers, for instance, do sometimes mix up the standard prepositions that are used in given expressions. If you are unsure of which preposition to use with a specific verb or in a particular phrase, then check the dictionary.

Not: 

He agreed to comply by the policies of the company.
When she arrived at the game, my sister was accompanied with her latest boyfriend.

But:

He agreed to comply with the policies of the company.
When she arrived at the game, my sister was accompanied by her latest boyfriend.

Examples of Idiomatic Expressions
against the grain
call someone on the carpet
dead in the water
get up and go
in a jiffy
left in the dark
peas in a pod
right on top of it
take to your heels
walk on eggshells

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