Many how-to guides stress that your writing must be clear and concise, yet the exact definition of conciseness is as elusive as an esthetic category of elegance. Can one objectively measure it? Isn’t it all just a matter of taste? What can you do to achieve conciseness?
In this post, I don’t promise you a simple recipe. Instead, I will share with you some rules of thumb along with my personal observations stemming from years of practice as a paper writer.
First of all, let’s try to define conciseness. It is a bit tricky. It’s not as simple as following a step-by-step guide but not as vague as the nebulous “essence of elegance” either. Concise writing serves its purpose well and clearly communicates the message to the intended reader. That’s the major source of confusion because “concise” will mean different things for a paragraph in a course book, a monograph, and an email. That brings us to the first rule of concise writing.
Remember your audience
You must suit your writing to accommodate your audience. Many guides on conciseness, for example, say that you should avoid professional jargon or long, bookish words, but this will not necessarily make your writing concise. If you are writing for a professional audience, jargon is relevant. It helps you communicate efficiently. Yet, if you write for a general audience, you should avoid overly complicated terminology. If using some terms is necessary, give a brief definition to prime your readers.
On the other hand, you shouldn’t over-explain commonplace things. If your intended audience is your peers in World Literature class, you probably shouldn’t preface your essay on gender representation in Shakespeare’s plays with explanations of who Shakespeare was and his place in culture.
Assessing your reader’s level of competence in the topic and adjusting your writing to cater to your audience is key for creating concise texts.
Define your purpose
Each text is an act of communication. Each act of communication has a purpose. Before you start writing, you must define the “why” of your text. Why it needs to be written? The answer “Because I need to hand in 2,000 words by Friday” is where you get unclear and messy essays with no defined subjects. Your topic is not the “why.” It’s merely a theme on which you must make a statement.
Start each essay with an attempt to convey your main thought in one sentence. This will be your working “thesis statement.” Everything else should work towards this statement. If you write an argumentative or persuasive essay, choose three main arguments that support the claim. If you write an analytical essay, focus on three aspects of the subject you want to pick apart to find the answer to your research question. This is the basis for your outline. You may make it formal or jot some notes on a piece of paper – it doesn’t matter. Yet the outline should always start with the purpose. A good outline is a map to achieve it.
Choose the tone
The tone is the manner in which you deliver your message. Traditionally, there are formal, semi-formal, and casual varieties, but they have many additional flavors: authoritative, friendly, conversational, expert, passionate, etc.
In academic writing, a formal expert tone is usually preferred, which can play a dirty trick on students who don’t feel confident or knowledgeable enough to fill these shoes. That’s why students try to imitate the style they see in course books and scholarly articles, including long-winding passages and complex words they don’t fully understand. This is, of course, the wrong way to approach writing if your goal is conciseness. Imitating excellent examples can be very useful, true. Yet you must first understand what makes them so good they are worthy of imitation – including the correct word use.
Another thing is that no matter how helpful, imitation is just a strategy on the way to your genuine goal – finding your own voice and developing a unique, recognizable manner of writing. It’s best to start with your own natural way of speaking and adjust for your particular goal for this text. For example, if you write an argumentative or persuasive essay, don’t be afraid to sound enthusiastic or passionate – this helps to deliver your message effectively. Of course, you should avoid colloquialisms or sounding too casual, but improperly using words you’ve found in a thesaurus is just as bad.
Edit, edit, edit
No matter how clear your thoughts are, no writing is perfect from the first draft. Conciseness happens in editing. Ronell Smith, editor and content strategist, advises to leave the text for a few days and let it “breathe” before you get back to it. This distance makes redundancies, consistency issues, and gaps in logic more evident. Of course, this advice was given about online articles and blog content, but this works just as well for academic writing.
Be open to changes. Seek feedback from your peers, instructors, or professional editors. Consider automated grammar-checking tools. Apps like Grammarly or Hemingway can be a great help for a beginner. They highlight spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors and suggest improvements for readability, conciseness, word use, and delivery. Of course, being AI, they are not always right and skew on the side of simplification at all costs, but they are genuinely helpful when you are starting out and trying to find your style.
Trim down excessive words
When the thoughts are clear and the logic behind the text is correct, the biggest remaining problem is usually wordiness or redundancy. Why it’s a problem? Because this means you use more words than you should without adding to the meaning – that’s the opposite of conciseness! Here is what Amanda Patterson, a writer and reviewer, says about this: “Redundancies pad your writing and bore your readers. The longer sentences are liable to make people stop reading altogether.” This is true for all prose but is especially relevant for academic writing. Here is what to look for to identify and eliminate wordiness when you revise:
- Redundant pairs. These are expressions where each word has a similar meaning as another and adds little to the message. For example, each and every, hopes and dreams, first and foremost, full and complete, always and forever, true and accurate, etc. These expressions are commonly used together for emphasis, so they are okay for poetic contexts. However, if your rhetorical situation requires clarity and conciseness, you might want to leave just one word of the two.
- Unnecessary qualifiers. A qualifier is a word or phrase that limits the reach of a statement. Some of the most common qualifiers are really, actually, basically, probably, definitely, somewhat, extremely, practically. Although qualifiers may add nuance, they aren’t always necessary to convey the meaning, so you might want to remove them. This tweak can help you shorten each sentence by a word or two, which isn’t much but adds up.
- Unnecessary modifiers. Sometimes, the word or phrase already has the meaning added by a modifier, rendering the modifier repetitive. For example, free gift, unbridled freedom, anticipate in advance, merge together, circle around, etc. Again, each case is unique, and there can be some nuance lost when you edit out such modifiers, but in most cases, all they do is take up space.
Rephrase for brevity
Many phrases can be replaced with a single word, but they are so commonly used in formal writing that we have stopped seeing the redundancy in them. For example, the reason for, for the purpose of, in the event that, under circumstance in which, in the light of the fact that, etc. In most cases, such expressions can be replaced with words like because, for, if, when, should, must, etc., without their meaning being lost. If your priority is clarity, vet those out.
You should also watch out for nominalizations – prepositional phrases that can be replaced with a single word. For example, give an assessment of -> assess, have enough capacity to -> can, perform an analysis of -> analyze, etc. These phrases aren’t always wrong, but they might detract your reader’s attention from the meaning, especially if they crop up. When overused, they make your text sound a bit pretentious, like that meme I don’t currently possess the ability to can.
Another thing you can do is change negative phrases into affirmatives. Again, negative phrases aren’t inherently wrong and sometimes fit the context better, but they usually use more words than affirmatives. Hence, identifying and changing them might make your text shorter and more straightforward. It also makes your text more accessible because your readers don’t have to “reverse engineer” the sentence to figure out its meaning. For example, the phrase “If you aren’t yet 21, we cannot serve you alcohol” can be revised to sound like “We only serve alcohol to adults above 21.”
Vary length of sentences
Many guides warn against run-on sentences and recommend splitting them into shorter chunks. However, you shouldn’t confuse run-on sentences with lengthy ones. A run-on sentence combines two or more independent grammatical structures incorrectly connected; it’s about grammar, not length. Even a short sentence can be run on. For example, “This is a complicated topic, there is no consensus on it yet, scholars are debating it to this day.” On the other hand, a whole paragraph of a sentence can be grammatically correct – and even concise, if it defines a complex phenomenon dependent on many conditions.
That said, of course, brevity is a desirable quality. Shorter sentences are easier to parse for your readers and easier for you to construct correctly without losing your point along the way. If you re-read your text and find that sentence is cumbersome and difficult to follow, it’s worth considering how you can split it.
However, it doesn’t mean you must necessarily chop sentences that are longer than X words. Don’t divide phrases mechanically. Instead of being concise, you might end up sounding choppy and unnatural. Such texts are as difficult to follow as long-winding ramblings everyone tries to avoid.
The best way to create an engaging, naturally flowing text is to vary the length of the sentences as they follow your thoughts. If you need guidelines on “ideal” size, here is an approximate benchmark. If you read your text out loud and cannot utter a sentence in one breath, it is probably too long and could use some trimming down. However, if your sentence explains one idea and cannot be divided into smaller segments without losing sense, leave it as is.
Use active and passive voice purposefully
If you have read at least one guide on writing better, you must have seen advice to use active voice more or even a call to eradicate all passive constructions from your text. This advice can be misleading.
True, sentences in active voice where the subject performs an action sound stronger and more assertive. They paint a picture. This makes them preferable in fiction and creative writing. However, there is nothing inherently wrong with passive voice, where the subject is being acted upon. The difference is in focus. Active voice concentrates on the actor, while passive voice concentrates on the object of the action. Both can be concise and fitting, depending on the context.
For example, an active voice in the sentence “Our team has discovered a link between artificial colorants and cancer” puts focus on the team. It sounds like it showcases their good work and would look well in a grant report or a CV. On the other hand, a passive voice in “A link has been discovered between artificial colorants and cancer” puts focus on the link, the discovery. This sentence is perfect for a lab report or a research paper that presents findings and stresses the significant new data.
Both active and passive voice have a place in concise writing, but you must use them mindfully to direct your reader’s attention and fit the context.
Conciseness is a mandatory ingredient of a good style, but not the only one. Don’t feel like any of the recommendations above are binding or applicable in 100 percent of all cases. You should always keep in mind your audience and your purpose. If you feel that a playful, conversational tone requires a couple of wordy expressions, it’s not a crime. If you think breaking one or two rules better serves your purpose, go ahead and break them. That is how you find your own voice. Good luck, be concise, and love writing!