Conciseness Used in Speech and Composition

Advice on Planning a Paper Through Word Pruning

Conciseness Definition


The term conciseness refers to speech or writing that is brief and to the point. In a concise composition, a great deal is conveyed in just a few words. It's not about just writing short sentences, though, but getting across the most important information economically, without repetition, unnecessary jargon, needless details, and tangents. Concise writing keeps the reader engaged and doesn't waste his time with circumlocution, padding, and verbosity. Without unnecessary clutter, the reader is more likely to understand the message, remember it, and even act on it, if that's the point of the piece.

First Steps: Before the Draft

The first steps in writing concisely overall begin as soon as the project starts, when you narrow down your topic to the thesis statement, story you want to ​tell, or message you need to convey. Before you even start drafting, you may sketch out ideas, necessary avenues of research, or plot points. Organize the best ideas in your outline, cutting some of the unnecessary before you even write a word. This enables you to target your writing and not waste time developing sections that aren't necessary to the goal of the article, essay, report, or story. ​


On your first draft, the main task is getting through it from start to finish. During the research phase, you may have discarded or added some points to your outline, making your thesis stronger. The cutting can continue throughout composing the first draft (and beyond). Get through that first draft, composing your main points. You don't have to write it from beginning to end; sometimes it's easier to start in the middle and come back to the introduction and conclusion, sprinkling in the perfect cited quotes or the tense scene of dialogue in just the right spot.

The perfect quotes from sources in articles, essays, and reports can actually save a lot of words spent narrating. Watch the ratio of quoted material and paraphrased sources to your own writing, though. Use only the best material as direct quotes for maximum impact. Summarize and paraphrase your research (cite paraphrases) in your own words. The piece needs to be your work in the end. 

When you're satisfied with the draft, take a break. You've accomplished something significant. And yes, the break is necessary, because you need to come back to the piece with "fresh eyes" to see what can be cut next.

Author Elie Wiesel describes the process this way:

"Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain. There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages, which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them." ("Elie Wiesel: Conversations," edited by Robert Franciosi. University Press of Mississippi, 2002)

Big-Picture Revision

Depending on your work's length, your revision step may first be large-scale trimming of sections or chapters, or you may start at the paragraph or sentence level. With a longer work, it's useful to take a step back and compare the thesis statement and outline to the draft. Do you have sections, points, examples, or paragraphs that stray from your topic? Do they move the information or story forward? Will the reader still understand your point without them?

We often meet large-scale cutting with reluctance, so it softens the blow to have a "cuttings" document. You move it rather than delete it. The work is still there if you feel later you need some bits of it, but it's not slowing down or cluttering up the paper you're refining. It could even be the start of another piece later. This is where eliminating some tangents before drafting really pays dividends.

Roy Peter Clark, author of "Writing Tools" has this advice:

"[B]egin by pruning the big limbs. You can shake out the dead leaves later.
• Cut any passage that does not support your focus.
• Cut the weakest quotationsanecdotes, and scenes to give greater power to the strongest.
• Cut any passage you have written to satisfy a tough teacher or editor rather than the common reader.
• Don't invite others to cut. You know the work better. Mark optional trims. Then decide whether they should become actual cuts."

Sentence-Level: Redundancy and Repetition

After you've honed your message, the sentence level is where the scissors and scalpel come in, and the hatchet goes back in the closet.

First look at the remaining paragraphs for spots where you've said the same thing in multiple ways. The area is likely something difficult to explain or complex.

Solutions: Take these sentences and combine the best parts of them or start over explaining that particular point. 

Example: The ability of the different bird species to eat seeds depends on beak style and shape. Its form dictates function. The beak needs to be powerful enough to break seeds, and those that eat mainly fruit or leaves may not be able to eat seeds due to their types and shapes of beak.

Reworded fix: Whether different bird species can eat seeds depends on their beak style. For example, seed eaters' beaks are shaped differently and stronger than those species that eat mainly fruit or leaves because seed eaters need to break hulls.

The moral of the story: Don't be afraid to recast sentences to condense ideas. The beak shape and style was referenced explicitly more than needed. Your reader will be able to follow along if you're clear. And concise sentences are often more clear than wordy ones.

Sentence-Level: Wordiness

Next, look for sentences that are really long. Read them out loud. Do you have to take a breath? Does the meaning get lost? Do they sound awkward to the ear?

  • Solutions: Take out explanations put in parentheses or dashes, which send a reader on a winding path. These can be their own sentences. Break one into two to three or two long sentences (more than 25–30 words each) up into three or four. It'll help you to be clear and the reader to grasp what's going on. Recast passive voice. 
  • Example: Following the author’s study of "The Naval Chronicle," which goes into detail on the wars with Napoleon, a trip aboard a freighter from California to Central America, and his trip back home to Britain, the first book in the series was plotted.
  • Fix: The author studied "The Naval Chronicle," which details the Napoleonic wars, and took a freighter from California to Central America. By the time he returned to Britain, he'd plotted the series' first book.
  • The moral of the story: The extra-long sentence has a long parenthetical in the middle of a series of items, passive voice, consecutive prepositional phrases, and wordiness. The information flows more smoothly when made into two sentences following a more chronological path than starting with a dependent clause.

    Rephrase passive "there is/are" constructions.

    • Example: There is a rule on the books that covers fencing styles for the homeowners' association.
    • Fixes: The homeowners' association has a rule on the books that covers fencing style. OR The homeowners' association rulebook covers fencing style.
    • The moral of the story: Eliminating "to be" verbs automatically makes your sentences better. Getting rid of "there is" often also gets rid of "that."

    Cut excess adjectives and adverbs: Will your sentence be understood without the adjectives or adverbs? Cut them, if so. 

    • Example: She walked very slowly.
    • Fix: She plodded along.
    • The moral of the story: Changing the verb makes for a stronger image. Qualifiers and intensifiers are often just filler.

    Other fixes:

    • Cut jargon. Your work will be more accessible if you don't make your prose too flowery. Keep it simple.
    • Use shorter words instead of long ones. 
    • Cut empty phrases and common redundancies

    Author Annie Dillard sums it up like this in "Notes for Young Writers": "Don't use any extra words. A sentence is like a machine; it has a job to do. An extra word in a sentence is like a sock in a machine."