10 tips for more concise writing

Writing concisely is a great skill–useful for 200-word conference abstracts, 7000-word articles, elegant emails and effective cover letters.

Here are 10 tips that I have gleaned over time.

1. Start sentences with the subject. 
This is both a grammatical point and a content point. Grammatically, the ‘subject’ is the noun in the sentence that does the verb. (I walked to the shops= I am the subject, I do the walking, the shops are just there for me to walk to).

Starting sentences with the subject makes your writing clearer because it’s obvious right up who or what the sentence is about.

Compare:

As I have previously argued, it was not until after the last batch of votes was counted, that the Senator was able to declare victory. 

The Senator declared victory after the last batch of votes was counted.  

2. Use the active verb.

Verbs are tricky. You can use them to avoid doing anything at all, and you can take verbs that should suggest action and turn them into passive forms.

The passive voice is where you invert the sentence, and make the object the start of the sentence. (The shops were walked to by me). This is a less concise way of writing (5 words become 7, even in this simple example), and it’s roundabout. This can lead to confused sentences where I’m not sure what is being caused by who.

The passive voice should only be used in situations where there is no causality or agency (the subject isn’t making things happen or making choices).

As I have previously argued, it was not until after the last batch of votes was counted, that victory could be declared by the Senator.  

The Senator declared victory after the last batch of votes was counted.  

3. Get rid of adverbs and reduce your adjectives. 

Stephen King in his wonderful On Writing includes a diatribe against adverbs.

Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. … With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across. (For more see this extract in Brain Pickings)

In a recent essay extracted from Amitava Kumar’s  Lunch with a BigotKumar reproduces VS Naipaul’s rules for writing. On descriptive words, he says:

The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of color, size and number.
Use as few adverbs as possible.

Adjectives in academic writing are often used in the place of evidence. Replace them with quantities, data, dates, quotes.

The exultant Senator proudly declared victory after the very last batch of votes was counted.   

The Senator declared victory after the last batch of votes was counted at 6.20pm.  He described himself as ‘proud to have the opportunity to serve’. 

4. Use the shortest form of the word.

Why say ‘utilise’ if you mean ‘use’? Why say ‘conceptualisation’ if you mean ‘concept’?

Using a longer form of the word can also be a trap for the unwary. I recently read a student’s work which used ‘conception of decadence’ instead of ‘concept’. I therefore obviously imagined the moment decadence’s mother got pregnant.

The Senator promulgated his victory after the ultimate collection of democratic choices had been enumerated.

The Senator declared victory after the last batch of votes was counted.   

5. Use the shortest form of a phrase.

There are lots of stock phrases that we use to connect sentences, to signpost and to pad our writing. Use ‘However’ in preference to ‘On the other hand’. Use ‘how’ in preference to ‘the ways in which’.

The Senator explained the ways in which his electoral victory were unique. 

The Senator explained how his electoral victory was unique. 

6. Keep your sentences to 25-30 words.

it’s almost impossible to keep control of a sentence that’s over about 40 words, and it’s very hard to follow one. You really can’t get lost in a 25 word sentence, as a thinker, a writer or a reader.

I have a tendency to run to 50 word sentences, so breaking them into 2 makes my thinking clearer, my writing more effective, and helps my reader. (This sentence is about 28 words; it has two main clauses and a list. You can do a lot in 30 words).

7. Keep your paragraphs to 250-300 words. 

I regularly read work where the paragraph is a page long. My doctoral supervisor always said that you should have 2-3 paragraphs to a page.

A paragraph is not a whole idea, it’s a small step in the argument. You should be able to hold the entirety of a paragraph in your mind at once, glance your eye over it in one sweep.

Short paragraphs help you to identify writing that doesn’t belong in your text when you reverse outline.

8. Don’t refer back. 

Patrick Dunleavy in his classic Authoring a PhD claims:

In a book or PhD, start each chapter cleanly. Never link back

It is a waste of energy and words to start any section with “As I discussed in the previous chapter, dum de dum de dum’”, he says.

This kind of writing sends the reader backwards, in thought and possibly literally leafing back through your work. You want your writing to be moving forward, and your reader with you. For this reason, you want to avoid using pronouns that could be confusing.

Start chapters, sections, paragraphs and sentences with the name or noun of the subject. Don’t be shy about naming them again and again, it’s less boring to reread ‘MacNeice’ or ‘the Senator’ or ‘the mycelium of pine mushrooms’ than having to re-read sentences to check what ‘he’ or ‘it’ might be referring to.

As I have previously argued, it was not until after the last batch of votes was counted, that the Senator was able to declare victory. The Mayor made a speech of congratulation, followed by the Governor. He replied that he was looking forward to working with him in future. 

The Senator declared victory after the last batch of votes was counted.  The Mayor made a speech of congratulation, followed by the Governor. The Governor said that he was looking forward to working with the Senator. 

9. Only explain one idea at a time.

Multitasking in writing is very messy. Multi-tasking anywhere is less effective than doing one thing at a time. Writing in particular is only able to do one thing at a time. Unlike a visual image or listening to music (where you can take in the ‘whole’ of multiple parts and colours/notes), you can only read one word at a time.

Academic writing in particular values logical progression, explanation of cause and effect, isolation of individual factors. If you try to discuss too many factors together, they are likely to get confused, or at least confusing. Then you’ll need unnecessary words to explain them.

10. Avoid extraneous ideas.

Keep to the single purpose of the writing. Anything else doesn’t belong in this piece. (If it has been relegated to a footnote, this is your first sign it’s extraneous).

I was going to explain this further, but I think it’s pretty clear. Rule 11, stop when you are done!

***

I hope you find these 10 rules helpful. Let me know if you have any rules that you would add!

As always, these rules are guidelines, not edicts. Knowing them enables you to easily write clearly and effectively most of the time. And when you really do need to break these rules, you do so intentionally.  

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18 Comments

  1. this is fantastically clear. thanks! One thing I would add if you are talking about writing a longer essay is that a topic sentence (the first sentence of the paragraph) should give the topic and argument of the paragraph (the idea of the paragraph). I always tell my students that it should be possible to create an abstract of the entire paper by reading only the topic sentences. If your argument does not become clear in the topic sentences you need to rewrite them or restructure.

  2. Thanks enormously.

    I’m developing some guides for staff at non-profit NGOs who work with children. Many have no academic qualifications but are required to write various types of reports.

    I was researching the part about concise and clear writing when I came across your post.

    Your (appropriately attributed) ‘voodoo’ is exactly what I was looking.

    Cheers!

  3. I wish I’d had this list when I started teaching writing many years ago, but I have some nitpicks about point 2.

    “The shops were walked to by me” is not a passive sentence; passives use transitive verbs taking a direct object, for example, “My arm was broken by a mugger.’

    We can reasonably use a passive where the cause is known but unimportant, and the outcome is the point of interest. If someone asks “What was your injury?” an appropriate reply is “My arm was broken [by a mugger].”

    “The passive voice should only be used in situations…” is a curious construction to use under the circumstances. How about, “Use the passive voice when…”?

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