Conciseness for Better Composition

How trimming excess verbiage can give your writing greater impact

Conciseness Definition

 ThoughtCo

In speech or writing, the term conciseness refers to language that's brief and to the point. To be effective, concise writing must deliver a clear message using an economy of words. Concise writing doesn't waste time with circumlocution, padding, or verbosity. Repetition, unnecessary jargon, and needless details are to be avoided. When you minimize clutter, readers are more likely to remain engaged, understand and remember your message—and even act on it, should that be your goal.

Before You Start Writing

Whether you're tackling an article, essay, report, composition, or something in a fiction genre, such as a story or novel, the task of writing concisely begins as soon as your project starts. You must first narrow down your topic to bare bones in order to create what's known as a thesis statement. This is a brief explanation that encapsulates the information, theme, or message you're hoping to convey. Even for fiction, having a clear statement of purpose can help keep you focused.

The second step prior to beginning your first draft is to flesh out your thesis with any necessary avenues of research or your story arc in the form of an organized outline. Once you've got that, prioritize it by the most pertinent points and prune out anything that's not vital. By keeping only the most important ideas, you'll be able to target your writing and not waste time going off on unnecessary tangents. However, you may wish to keep deleted material for future reference.

The First Drafting

Your priority in writing a first draft should be to get through it from start to finish. You should have already highlighted points you want to cover during the research and outlining phases. You don't have to write your draft in a linear format from beginning to end. Sometimes it's easier to start in the middle and then work your way back to the introduction. Some writers even start at the conclusion. Just remember that editing clutter should be an ongoing process judiciously employed throughout the first draft—and beyond.

Once you've covered the main ground, review the draft to add in pertinent quotes, citations, or dialogue as needed. While the perfect quote from an article, essay, or other published work can save time when composing your narrative, you must be mindful of the ratio of quoted material or paraphrased sources to your own writing. For maximum impact, use only the most relevant quotes. When possible, summarize and paraphrase your research, always taking care to use proper source citations.

At the end of the day, the piece must be in your own words. Plagiarism is easily detected—especially in the digital age. You should also be aware that some editors and teachers will not include extensively quoted material in a final word count. That means if you have an assignment of 1,000 words, all but a very small percentage of those words must be original material.

After the First Draft

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

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."

Big-Picture Revision

How much revision you'll need to do will depend on the length of your work and how closely you were able to follow your outline. Before making changes, take a step back and compare your thesis statement and outline to the draft, always keeping in mind the old adage, when it comes to concise writing, "less is more."

"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."—From "Notes for Young Writers" by Annie Dillard

Ask yourself if you have sections, points, examples, or paragraphs that stray from your topic. If you do, does this material move the information or story forward? Will the reader still understand the point you're attempting to make if you delete it? For longer works, large-scale trimming of sections or chapters may be necessary. If you're lucky, however, you'll be able to start at the paragraph or sentence level.

Cutting on a large scale is something may writers have a problem with. As mentioned for the outline, it can be helpful to keep deleted material in a separate document that you can later refer to should the need arise. The excess material might even form the basis of a future piece of writing.

"[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."—From "Writing Tools" by Roy Peter Clark

Reducing Redundancy and Repetition

Once you've honed your message, you reach sentence-level editing. This is where the scissors and scalpel come in—and the hatchet goes back in the closet. Review each paragraph for instances in which you've said the same thing in multiple ways. This occurs fairly often when something has a difficult or explanation.

The solution is either to combine the best parts of redundant sentences or to start over and clarify the point you're trying to make. Don't be afraid to restructure sentences or to condense ideas. The more clearly and cleanly you write, the better your readers will comprehend your message. Look at the following example for reference:

  • Redundant: The ability of different bird species to eat nuts and larger seeds depends on their beak style and shape. The form of the beak dictates function. The beaks of nut-eating birds must be powerful enough to break hulls and shaped to hold the food as the bird eats. Birds that eat mainly fruit or leaves may not be able to eat nuts due to their beaks being smaller and less forceful.
  • Revision: Some birds can eat nuts and seeds, others can't. The deciding factor is the size and shape of their beaks. Nut- and seed-eating birds have powerful, curved beaks to hold food and crush hulls. Species that eat mainly fruit or leaves have smaller, weaker beaks.

Fast Facts: 4 Rules for Concise Writing

  1. Avoid jargon. 
  2. Keep it simple. The less flowery your prose, the more accessible will be.
  3. Use shorter words instead of long ones when appropriate.
  4. Edit out empty phrases and delete common redundancies

More Ways to Cut Wordiness

One red flag for redundancy is sentences that are overly long. If you suspect something's overwritten, try reading it out loud. Does it sound awkward to the ear? Do you have to pause to take a breath? Does your meaning go off track? If the answer is yes, there are some things you can do to separate the wheat from the chaff:

  • Can your sentence be understood without excess adjectives and adverbs? If so, delete them. 
  • Changing a verb can create a stronger image.
  • Qualifiers and intensifiers—such as "very" and "extremely"—are usually just filler.
  • While sometimes it's better to spell it all out, use contractions when you can. It sounds more conversational and less stilted. "That's just the way it is" is preferable to "That is just the way it is."
  • Rephrase passive "there is/are" constructions. Eliminating "to be" verbs will make your sentences stronger.
  • Cut extraneous instances of "there is" and "that." For example: "There is a rule on the books to cover appropriate fence styles for the homeowners' association" is not as clear or concise as "The homeowners' association rulebook covers appropriate fence styles."
  • Review anything in parentheses or between dashes, which can sometimes send a reader off on a winding path. When possible, let the phrases stand alone as sentences.
  • Break sentences of more than 25–30 words into smaller sentences.
  • While there are exceptions, as a general rule, avoid using the passive voice

Look at the following example to see how some of these rules can be applied:

  • Wordy: 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 England, the first book in the series was plotted.
  • Revision: After studying "The Naval Chronicle," which details the Napoleonic Wars, the author took a freighter voyage from California to Central America. He plotted the first book in the series upon returning home to England.

Note that this extra-long sentence is bogged down with a parenthetical phrase in the middle of a series of items. It's also guilty of passive voice, consecutive prepositional phrases, and excessive verbiage. The information reads more clearly and is more easily understood when written as two sentences.

Sources

  • "Elie Wiesel: Conversations." Edited by Robert Franciosi. University Press of Mississippi, 2002
  • Dillard, Annie. "Notes for Young Writers." Katharsis. August 4, 2013
  • Clark, Roy Peter. "Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer." Little, Brown Spark, 2006; Hachette, 2016