8.2 Conciseness

Successful technical writing is concise. Once you have written a solid draft, a document that has been well researched, take a step back and question whether or not you can delete half of the words. In a world where billions of instant messages and emails are sent daily, brevity is a virtue. Readers appreciate concise writing. They respect writers who can explain difficult matters simply.

Conciseness Improves Flow

Unfortunately, many writers use sentences that are too wordy. This is not to suggest that lengthy sentences can never be used (because they certainly can), but at times writers make the mistake of using more words than necessary to get their message across.

EXAMPLE:

Michelle was supposed to have her car’s oil changed every 3,000 miles, and since it had been 3,000 miles since her last oil change, she took her car to the mechanic.

The above sentence makes sense, though the statement could be more precise if it were phrased a little differently.  Describing the action first, followed by the reason, would improve it:

Michelle got an oil change because it had been 3,000 miles since her last one.

The above sentence conveys the same message and is more succinct and direct. True, the sentence omits certain parts: that Michelle “was supposed to have her car’s oil changed every 3,000 miles,” but we know this already (or can presume so) from the word “because.” The sentence also omits “she took her car to the mechanic,” because it’s obvious—mechanics typically perform oil changes. However, if it’s important for readers to know that she went to a mechanic, then it should be kept.

The first sentence example isn’t wrong; it just has some superfluous wording, which can disrupt your writing’s flow. Just as machines don’t have extra parts, sentences shouldn’t have extra words.

EXAMPLE:

Writing that is redundant and states the obvious and says the same thing over and over again is irritating for readers who want writers to get to the point right away. On the other hand, as I am sure you can understand, it is equally important for writers to avoid confusion when they write and to put down as much information–that is, as many words–as the reader needs in order to understand what the writer means when he or she says what he or she says. Also, of course, when you are writing, it is important for you to remember that readers are reading your words and that you need to be somewhat entertaining–even when the subject is technical when conveying information, so that your readers will keep reading and not go off and do something else like play ice hockey.

The above passage is unnecessarily wordy, imprecise, and, at times, confusing. It can be distilled into a single sentence as shown below:

 Writers should balance conciseness with voice and the reader’s need for information.

 

Redundancy Reduces Conciseness

Writing concisely also involves avoiding redundancies.  Redundancy happens when you use more words than necessary to express something, especially words and/or phrases in the same sentence that mean the same thing.  Many writers are guilty of violating this rule at times, especially in their daily conversations.  However, as you proofread your papers, try to double-check them for unnecessary phrases that you can omit or edit.

Here are some examples of redundant phrases:

      • “small in size” or “large in size”
      • “true facts”
      • “basic fundamentals”
      • “past history”
      • “evolve over time”
      • “consensus of opinion”

If you think about what’s being said in each of the above phrases, you can catch the redundancies: if something is small, for example, it’s small—you don’t need to tack on “in size” for clarification.  If an event took place in history, then you don’t need to specify that it took place in “past history” (all history is past). If something is a “fact,” then by definition it’s true.

Here are some additional examples of words and phrases that can often be pruned for clarity:

      • “kind of”
      • “sort of”
      • “really”
      • “basically”
      • “for all intents and purposes”
      • “actually”
      • “generally”

Eliminating Wordiness Improves Clarity

Here are a few methods to practice to help make your writing clearer and more concise:

    1. 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 filler and can easily be eliminated.

EXAMPLE:

WORDY MORE CONCISE
Any particular type of dessert is fine with me. Any dessert is fine with me.
Being able to balance the budget by Friday is an impossibility without some kind of extra help. Balancing the budget by Friday is impossible without extra help.

 

    1. Change phrases into single words

Convert phrases into single words when possible.

EXAMPLE:

WORDY MORE CONCISE
The employee who has lots of ambition… The ambitious employee…
The department that is showing the best performance… The best-performing department…

 

    1. Change unnecessary that, who, and which clauses into phrases

Convert modifying clauses into phrases or single words when possible.

EXAMPLE:

WORDY MORE CONCISE
The report, which was released recently… The recently released report…
All applicants who have expressed some interest in the job at some point must… All job applicants must…

 

    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, you can create a more concise sentence by eliminating the expletive opening, making the noun the subject of the sentence, and eliminating the relative pronoun.

EXAMPLE:

WORDY MORE CONCISE
It is the governor who signs or vetoes bills. The governor signs or vetoes bills.
There are four rules that should be observed: Four rules should be observed:
There was a big explosion, which shook the windows, and all the people ran out into the street. A big explosion shook the windows, and people ran into the street. 

                    

    1. Use active rather than passive verbs (for more information, see the section on  active vs passive voice).

The active voice emphasizes the person/thing doing the action in a sentence. To make a passive sentence active, put the subject at the beginning and follow it with a verb.

EXAMPLE:

WORDY MORE CONCISE
An account was opened by Mrs. Simms. Mrs. Simms opened an account.
Your figures were checked by the research department. The research department checked your figures.

   

    1. Omit words or phrases that explain the obvious or provide excessive detail

If you find passages that explain or describe in detail what would already be obvious to readers, delete or reword them.

EXAMPLE:

WORDY MORE CONCISE
It goes without saying that we are acquainted with our policy on filing tax returns, and we have every intention of complying with the regulations that you have mentioned. We intend to comply with your tax-return policy and regulations.

 

Imagine a mental picture of someone who is engaged in the intellectual activity of trying to learn the rules are for playing the game of chess. Imagine someone trying to learn the rules of chess.

 

 

Additional Resources

  • Writing Concisely.” from George Mason University’s Writing Center. Writingcenter.gmu.edu

 

*This page borrows from the following source: 
"Writing Concisely and Avoiding Redundancy." WritingCommons.org. Source link.

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