May 25, 2011

Grammar Girl: Writing Concisely (Part 1)

The most influential writing advice I ever got was also the most frustrating. That advice: "write concisely". I thought my professor was telling me to cut out all my lovely descriptive passages! killing my creative expression! and making my sentences short and lifeless! My students seemed to think so, too. But I made sure to point out to them that writing concisely isn't about brevity. What it is about is this: making every word count.

You know when you hang too many ornaments on your Christmas tree so that when you step back, you can't see the individual elements underneath all the holiday vomit? Some would argue you can get away with it on trees. But not so much in writing. Because too much of a good thing weakens your message, and inevitably the power of your voice is lost. Every word, every paragraph, every scene, every character needs to be adding something of value to your writing. Otherwise it's just beauty and grace hidden underneath a giant blob of tinsel.

Concise writing is something that you can flag-post in the editing process if you're paying attention. My students can usually pick out which sentences aren't "working" in terms of conciseness, but they struggle to pinpoint why. So here are some items that have helped my students (and me) do just that:
  1. Let your subject and verb come closer together. Sometimes moving your actor/agent and your verb closer together (and closer to the beginning of your sentence) will help make your sentences more direct and your emphasis clearer. You see this a lot in the use of passive voice. For example:
"The zombie had its head cut off by me with a long sword." (13 words) Revised: "I cut the zombie's head off with my sword." (9 words)

2. Turn nouns into verbs. Often nominalisation (turning verbs into nouns) makes for weak, confusing sentence structure. Try turning them back into verbs. For example:

"The realization that I had cut off the zombie's head made for the actualization of my dreams." (17) Revised: "I realized that cutting off the zombie's head actualized my dreams." (11)

3. Take our empty words or phrases. This also includes implied knowledge. I can't tell you how many times I crossed "In my opinion", and "all things considered" out of students papers. You know why? Because it's implied. Those phrases add nothing to your sentences. They're tinsel fillers that are taking up precious real estate on your tree. For example:
"In my opinion, Barack Obama still kicks some major ass, all things considered." (13) Revised: "Barack Obama still kicks some major ass." (7 words)

4. Avoid cliches and jargon. Cliches have their place and, sometimes, they can be useful. But they're called cliches because they're tired. They make your reader think, "haven't I read this somewhere before?" Because they have--lots of times. Great if that's what you're going for. Not so good if you're going for 'fresh'. In my opinion, the only place jargon belongs is in political speeches. And it kind of sucks there, too. If you're writing to say what you mean and make that meaning clear, jargon is not your friend. Not in government documents. Not in specialist journals. Nope, not anywhere. For example:

"We continue to stand behind the pillars of democratic values as we look to lift the currency of foreign opinions and esteem." Revised: "... sorry, what?"


  1. You're so smart. And I really like how your examples involved both zombies and Obama.

  2. I'm not that smart - this is just weeks of prepping for tutorials talking :) And yes, I thought you'd like that. I like to throw dirty themes into my examples, too, because it keeps my students awake. Most of the time.