Writing 101: Concise Writing

Concise writing is imperative. Nobody said it’s easy.

According to William Zinsser in his book, On Writing Well, “A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”

Ouch! Say what?

Zissner goes on to say,If you give me an eight-page article and I tell you to cut it to four pages, you’ll howl and say it can’t be done. Then you’ll go home and do it, and it will be much better. After that comes the hard part: cutting it to three.”

I wanted to be a writer when I was in first grade and penned these words, “Dick likes Jane.” I spent the rest of my school years learning to expand that three-word sentence (subject, verb, and object) by adding multiple subjects, verbs, objects, adverbs, adjectives, interjections, conjunctions, and prepositions. Dick and Jane evolved into a novelette of words captured within a sentence that made up an entire paragraph. Look at Karen write!

So imagine the “English teacher” inside me when I attended my first writers’ conference and learned—less is best. Against my will, I took my red-inked pen and demolished all the unnecessary words I’d relied upon to explain what I wanted to say. Every word mattered. My thoughts needed to be brief, clear, comprehensive. Why? Because the average reader has an attention span of about 30 seconds. They don’t have time, or the desire, to plow through verbiage to figure out my message.

Concise writing means using the fewest words possible to convey an idea clearly. Sentences don’t have to be short to be concise, but when we omit unnecessary words our sentences will naturally (uh oh . . . strike out that -ly word) become tighter. Our message will be easier to comprehend and jump off the page instead of getting buried in the middle of a run-on sentence regardless of how grammatically correct or impressive that sentence may appear on paper. (Can you shorten the previous sentence?)

The Elements of Style, by E.B. White and William Skunk, says, “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Author Stephen King tells his students, “What do you want to say? Every sentence that answers that question is part of the essay or story. Every sentence that does not needs to go. I don’t think it’s the words per se, it’s the sentences. I used to give them (students) a choice, sometimes: either write 400 words on ‘My Mother is Horrible’ or ‘My Mother is Wonderful.’ Make every sentence about your choice. That means leaving your dad and your snotty little brother out of it.”


Here are some tools for concise writing:

1) Omit redundant pairs:

  • true facts
  • past memories
  • free gift
  • frozen ice

2) Omit opening modifiers:

  • During that time
  • The point being
  • The fact is

3) Omit modifiers that describe adverbs such as:

  • very happy
  • so loud
  • especially good

4) Avoid starting sentences with there is, there are, it is:

  • There are four doctors on-call at the hospital. (Four doctors are on-call at the hospital.)

5) Avoid unnecessary adjectives:

  • Frisky kittens
  • tall skyscrapers
  • bubbling brook

Color, size, number can be used unless the color of an object is associated with the object:

  • yellow daffodils
  • brown dirt
  • green grass

6) Adverbs are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They usually end in ‘ly. Use strong verbs that can eliminate adverbs. Omit adverbs that carry the same meaning as the verb:

  • Mike walked rapidly home. (Mike rushed home.)
  • She smiled happily. (She smiled.)

7) Avoid passive voice

Jane was drinking her coffee very fast. (Jane gulped her coffee.)

8) Eliminate filler words that add no meaning or value to a sentence and simply “fill” the space.

  • I sat down on the couch. (I sat on the couch.)
  • I stood up. (I stood.)
  • I opened up the window. (I opened the window.)

9) Replace formal phrases with simpler words:

Are you experiencing any pain? (Does it hurt?)

We’re presently anticipating the possibility of some precipitation today.  (It may rain.)

I’m still learning to be concise. During Christmas, my husband and I visited extended family. I wrote a lengthy paragraph thanking our hostess for her hospitality. I handed the note to my husband so he could add his thoughts. He summarized the visit with these words: “Loaves and Fishes.”

The hostess cried when she read my husband’s words. She knew exactly what he meant. And she’ll remember his words long after the ink has dried. As for my flowery, heartfelt words? I can’t remember what I wrote.


Exercises

Omit unnecessary words and rewrite:

  • He dropped out of school on account of the fact that it was necessary for him to help support his family.
  • Mary sat down on the sandy beach and quickly wrote down all her thoughts and ideas in her personal journal until her fingers were all cramped from writing things down.
  • The fact is, I wasn’t very happy because the food at the restaurant was too expensive.
About Karen Foster 10 Articles
Karen Foster is a nonfiction writer and speaker. Her first-person story appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Military Families (May 2017). Karen's articles and devotions have been published in multiple magazines including The Upper Room, The Bible Advocate, Now What?, Discipleship Journal, and Moms Next. She blogs at KarenFosterMinistry.com. Or follow her on Twitter @eveninthis.

5 Comments

  1. Hi Karen. This post is fantastic!It’s an area I’m truly working on. Your list of things to omit is thought-provoking and I love that the teacher in you gave us “homework.”

  2. Thank you Karen, this is a great article. It’s so hard to cut out parts of our writing, but being concise is very important. I appreciate the many examples you included; this will help my writing a lot!

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