The goal of concise writing is to use the most effective words. Concise writing does not always have the fewest words, but it always uses the strongest ones. Writers often fill sentences with weak or unnecessary words that can be deleted or replaced. Words and phrases should be deliberately chosen for the work they are doing. Like bad employees, words that don't accomplish enough should be fired. When only the most effective words remain, writing will be far more concise and readable.
This resource contains general conciseness tips followed by very specific strategies for pruning sentences.
1. Replace several vague words with more powerful and specific words.
Often, writers use several small and ambiguous words to express a concept, wasting energy expressing ideas better relayed through fewer specific words. As a general rule, more specific words lead to more concise writing. Because of the variety of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, most things have a closely corresponding description. Brainstorming or searching a thesaurus can lead to the word best suited for a specific instance. Notice that the examples below actually convey more as they drop in word count.
2. Interrogate every word in a sentence
Check every word to make sure that it is providing something important and unique to a sentence. If words are dead weight, they can be deleted or replaced. Other sections in this handout cover this concept more specifically, but there are some general examples below containing sentences with words that could be cut.
3. Combine Sentences.
Some information does not require a full sentence, and can easily be inserted into another sentence without losing any of its value. To get more strategies for sentence combining, see the handout on Sentence Variety.
1. Eliminate words that explain the obvious or provide excessive detail
Always consider readers while drafting and revising writing. If passages explain or describe details that would already be obvious to readers, delete or reword them. Readers are also very adept at filling in the non-essential aspects of a narrative, as in the fourth example.
2. Eliminate unnecessary determiners and modifiers
Writers sometimes clog up their prose with one or more extra words or phrases that seem to determine narrowly or to modify the meaning of a noun but don't actually add to the meaning of the sentence. Although such words and phrases can be meaningful in the appropriate context, they are often used as "filler" and can easily be eliminated.
Here's a list of some words and phrases that can often be pruned away to make sentences clearer:
- kind of
- sort of
- type of
- for all intents and purposes
3. Omit repetitive wording
Watch for phrases or longer passages that repeat words with similar meanings. Words that don't build on the content of sentences or paragraphs are rarely necessary.
4. Omit redundant pairs
Many pairs of words imply each other. Finish implies complete, so the phrase completely finish is redundant in most cases.
So are many other pairs of words:
- past memories
- various differences
- each individual _______
- basic fundamentals
- true facts
- important essentials
- future plans
- terrible tragedy
- end result
- final outcome
- free gift
- past history
- unexpected surprise
- sudden crisis
A related expression that's not redundant as much as it is illogical is "very unique." Since unique means "one of a kind," adding modifiers of degree such as "very," "so," "especially," "somewhat," "extremely," and so on is illogical. One-of-a-kind-ness has no gradations; something is either unique or it is not.
5. Omit redundant categories
Specific words imply their general categories, so we usually don't have to state both. We know that a period is a segment of time, that pink is a color, that shiny is an appearance.
In each of the following phrases, the general category term can be dropped, leaving just the specific descriptive word:
- large in size
- often times
- of a bright color
- heavy in weight
- period in time
- round in shape
- at an early time
- economics field
- of cheap quality
- honest in character
- of an uncertain condition
- in a confused state
- unusual in nature
- extreme in degree
- of a strange type
1. Change phrases into single-words and adjectives
Using phrases to convey meaning that could be presented in a single word contributes to wordiness. Convert phrases into single words when possible.
2. Change unnecessary that, who, and which clauses into phrases
Using a clause to convey meaning that could be presented in a phrase or even a word contributes to wordiness. Convert modifying clauses into phrases or single words when possible.
3. Change Passive Verbs into Active Verbs
See our document on active and passive voice for a more thorough explanation of this topic.
Avoid Common Pitfalls
1. Avoid overusing expletives at the beginning of sentences
Expletives are phrases of the form it + be-verb or there + be-verb. Such expressions can be rhetorically effective for emphasis in some situations, but overuse or unnecessary use of expletive constructions creates wordy prose. Take the following example: "It is imperative that we find a solution." The same meaning could be expressed with this more succinct wording: "We must find a solution." But using the expletive construction allows the writer to emphasize the urgency of the situation by placing the word imperative near the beginning of the sentence, so the version with the expletive may be preferable.
Still, you should generally avoid excessive or unnecessary use of expletives. The most common kind of unnecessary expletive construction involves an expletive followed by a noun and a relative clause beginning with that, which, or who. In most cases, concise sentences can be created by eliminating the expletive opening, making the noun the subject of the sentence, and eliminating the relative pronoun.
2. Avoid overusing noun forms of verbs
Use verbs when possible rather than noun forms known as nominalizations. Sentences with many nominalizations usually have forms of be as the main verbs. Using the action verbs disguised in nominalizations as the main verbs—instead of forms of be—can help to create engaging rather than dull prose.
3. Avoid unnecessary infinitive phrases
Some infinitive phrases can be converted into finite verbs or brief noun phrases. Making such changes also often results in the replacement of a be-verb with an action verb.
4. Avoid circumlocutions in favor of direct expressions
Circumlocutions are commonly used roundabout expressions that take several words to say what could be said more succinctly. We often overlook them because many such expressions are habitual figures of speech. In writing, though, they should be avoided since they add extra words without extra meaning. Of course, occasionally you may for rhetorical effect decide to use, say, an expletive construction instead of a more succinct expression. These guidelines should be taken as general recommendations, not absolute rules.
Below are some other words which may simplify lengthier circumlocutions.
- "because," "since," "why" =
- the reason for
- for the reason that
- owing/due to the fact that
- in light of the fact that
- considering the fact that
- on the grounds that
- this is why
- "when" =
- on the occasion of
- in a situation in which
- under circumstances in which
- "about" =
- as regards
- in reference to
- with regard to
- concerning the matter of
- where ________ is concerned
- "must," "should" =
- it is crucial that
- it is necessary that
- there is a need/necessity for
- it is important that
- cannot be avoided
- "can" =
- is able to
- has the opportunity to
- has the capacity for
- has the ability to
- "may," "might," "could" =
- it is possible that
- there is a chance that
- it could happen that
- the possibility exists for