How to Be a Clear and Concise Writer
Editing is tedious. After the fun bits are done, planning your plot, writing the plot twists, jokes, puns, dialogue and character arches, finishing the final scene with a bang, (if you’re like me) you’re left with a rambling, incoherent, contradictory mess. So the editing begins and you read sentence after sentence of long winded descriptions and lengthy paragraphs.
Alternatively, you finish writing an essay. Your arguments are strong, all your ideas are down on the page, you have plenty of supporting evidence and you’ve even cut it down close the word count! You read back over what you thought sounded sophisticated and professional, and can’t make sense of a word of it.
Here’s a visual progression of me reading my drafts:
When your work is grammatically correct and engaging, but doesn’t sound quite right, it can be hard to know where to begin. Checking that your sentences are concise is a good place to start. Concise sentences are often, and are the most effective. This is important in academic writing, as (your english teacher will love it,) it makes your arguments sound stronger, your meaning clearer, and your word count slightly lower. However it is equally necessary in narrative. Concise sentences can still be descriptive and beautiful, the difference is the strength of your words. Wordy sentences wander, leaving the reader with a weaker understanding of it’s meaning. By eliminating all unnecessary phrases, leaving only the most effective words, your writing will be far more concise and readable. Here are 10 ways to do that
1. Use the active voice
You might recognize this from the grammerly ads on youtube, or perhaps from an english class. Passive voices tend to be weaker and wordier, while active voices get straight to the point by putting the noun before the verb. For example:
Passive: It is believed by the candidate that a ceiling must be placed on the budget by Congress.
Active: The candidate believes that Congress must place a ceiling on the budget.
Passive: It was earlier demonstrated that heart attacks can be caused by high stress.
Active: Brown earlier showed that high stress can cause heart attacks.
However sometimes it’s a good idea to use the passive voice, such as when you want to emphasize the action rather than the actor or to create an authoritative tone. Here’s a site that explains in detail when to use passive voice: http://advice.writing.utoronto.ca/revising/passive-voice/
2. Put the sentence’s action in the verb
This means identifying the verbs, and checking if they are relevent to the main idea of the sentence. For example in the previous sentence the verbs were “identifying” and “checking” both of which conveyed my message. This helps the reader understand the purpose and significance of the sentence.
3. Cut Redundancy
Redundant phrases repeat information. Consider the sentence: “I love the blue color of her eyes.”
“Blue color” is redundant. Your reader already knows blue is a color. “I love her blue eyes” is more concise.
4. Use expletive construction (It is, there is, there are) sparingly
“It was her last argument that finally persuaded me” is less clear than “Her last argument finally persuaded me.”
5. Avoid strings of nouns
Instead of “MHS has a hospital employee relations improvement program,” which sounds wordy and hard to follow, try “MHS has a program to improve relations among employees.”
6. Take out unnecessary prepositions
“The opinion of the community leader,” is less concise than “The community leader’s opinion.”
7. Interrogate each word in your sentence
Make sure that every word has something to say. Is it necessary to your sentence or is it only taking up space? Often weasel words and phrases such as “really”, “basically”, “the vast majority”, “some would argue” and others, sneak into our sentences and make them long. CUT THEM OUT!
8. Start your sentence with purpose, and a subject.
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.
Can be made clearer by starting the sentence with the subject like so:
The Senator declared victory after the last batch of votes was counted.
9. Use fewer adverbs and adjectives
As Stephen King advises, adverbs (the ones that usually end in -ly) and adjectives don’t get the point across clearly. Especially in academic writing, adjectives and adverbs can quickly fill sentences with fluff.
Consider these two sentences
Adverbs aren’t horribly bad, but they’re usually not needed.
Your writing will be more concise if you avoid adverbs.
Sentence 2 packs more of a punch. This rule doesn’t mean you can’t describe things, for example
“I broke my diet again!” Betty wailed, wiping salty chocolate tears from the corners of her mouth.
The second, technically unnecessary clause, gives the reader a clearer picture without the use of adverbs.
10. Deflate long phrases into single words
Here’s a chart that can help.
Keep in mind that above all, use common sense. There are exceptions, so if in doubt, write two forms of a sentense, read each out loud and decide which sounds better. I recommend reading Animal Farm by George Orwell, who’s writing style is famously concise. I studied it in school last term and I actually loved it (rare for a school book). He also has some advise for writers here: https://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/george-orwells-5-rules-for-effective-writing/
I hope this guide helps! Happy holidays!