Writing Concisely

See also: Clarity in Writing

Conciseness is the ability to write without using unnecessary words. Writing concisely is effective because your readers can obtain information quickly and easily, without wasting any time or energy. When you have a word limit, writing concisely will ensure that you can include all the necessary information.

Unfortunately, conciseness is often the opposite of what most of us are taught about writing at school. We may have been told to add adjectives and adverbs, or to use rhetorical devices like matched pairs (for example, ‘quickly and easily’) to add interest and create flow. You may therefore need to ‘unlearn’ much of your existing knowledge about writing. This page provides some advice to help you to do so.

Understanding Conciseness

Dictionary definition of conciseness

The dictionary definition of conciseness is, as you would expect, brief: quite literally, in fact.

concise, adj. cut short: brief.

conciseness, the quality of being concise, terseness.

Source: Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition.

In writing, conciseness means keeping your writing short and focused. It means not using unnecessary words, and avoiding repetition or redundancy.

Conciseness has a long history in writing. It is generally (and historically) agreed that it is harder than writing longer-form text.

Eminent writers on conciseness

“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

Blaise Pascal, The Provincial Letters (Letter 16, 1657)

Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.”

Henry David Thoreau, Letters to Various Persons, Letter to Harrison Blake; November 16, 1857

Unfortunately, this view that writing concisely is difficult has meant that many people don’t bother to try. This is a shame, because it is both effective and relatively straightforward in practice.

George Orwell set out six rules for writing in his essay Politics and the English Language (1946). They provide a very good guide to concise and clear writing (see box).

George Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Techniques for Reducing Wordiness in Writing

The key to writing concisely is simple: reduce the number of words that you use.

There are several rhetorical devices that we tend to use in writing that will expand the text. Hunting those down and removing them will be a helpful starting point for conciseness. They include:

1. Modifiers

Modifiers are words that are used to describe other words: to give them more meaning. Adverbs (which describe verbs) and adjectives (which describe nouns) are both modifiers.

As you will probably have learned in school, using adjectives and adverbs can make your writing more interesting. However, it can also make it longer and less clear.

A good first step to reducing the length of any piece of writing is to examine the modifiers to ensure that all of them are necessary.

TOP TIP! Try things out

On a computer, it is easy to test changes without losing your original text.

Try removing each modifier in turn and re-reading the sentence or text. Does it still make sense? If so, you probably didn’t need the modifier.

2. Qualifiers

Qualifiers are words that enhance or diminish adjectives or adverbs.

They include actually, essentially, really, generally, and completely. They may be important—but they may also be diluting the message.

These tend to be words that we use in speech for three reasons. The first is to emphasise a point, the second is to give us thinking time during a sentence, and the third is to soften an unpalatable message. In writing, you often don’t need them—and they may even be diluting the message you want to convey.

For example, in the sentence “Actually, these words are generally meaningless”, there are two qualifiers: actually and generally. Actually does not change the meaning at all, and you can remove it. Generally changes the meaning from ‘these words are always meaningless’ to ‘most of the time, these words are meaningless’. If you meant to say that these words were always meaningless, then you don’t need ‘generally’ either.

Ask yourself if a word is adding to your meaning. If you take it out, will the meaning change? If so, keep it. If not, delete it.

3. Redundant (or matching) pairs

Redundant or matching pairs are where you use two words with very similar meaning, connected by ‘and’. Examples include ‘above and beyond’, ‘bright and early’, and ‘each and every’.

These can be a very useful rhetorical device. They emphasise a point, and can also create flow and link ideas (and for more about this, see our page on Coherence).

Much of the time, however, they are unnecessary, and you can remove one of them without altering your meaning.

4. Words vs. phrases

There are many phrases in English that can be replaced by a single word.

It is not always easy to spot them when you write them. However, once you review your text, they may be more obvious. Examples include:

  • In order to’ can be replaced by ‘to’

  • Due to the fact that’ can be replaced by ‘because’

  • Together with’ can be replaced by ‘with’.

There is more about common phrases that can be replaced by single words in our page on Using Plain English.

5. Remove repetition

We tend to repeat ourselves when we are thinking through ideas. This means that early drafts of texts often contain a fair bit of redundancy and repetition. As you revise your text, look for whether each sentence adds a new idea, or is simply a different way of expressing the same concept.

If it’s just an alternative, delete one of them.

6. Stop signalling

Early drafts of documents often show our thought processes. They may therefore contain phrases like ‘I want to explain about...’, or ‘I should point out...’, or ‘It is important to note that...’. These are useful signposts to you when you are writing.

However, they are not necessary in a final document.

You also do not need to say what you are going to do or say next, or in the whole document. Eliminate any sentences that start with phrases like ‘The next section describes...’.

Conciseness vs. Coherence

If you have looked at our page on Coherence, you may now be thinking that conciseness and coherence are contradictory.

Coherence often requires the use of signposts and connectors—and here we are saying that you should remove signposts.

The use of blatant signposts (like those described above) is not essential for coherence. The signposts used in coherent writing are more subtle: words like ‘however’ and ‘therefore’, to show the flow of ideas. Using blatant signposts can even reduce coherence because it breaks up the flow and introduces repetition of ideas. Less really is more in this case.

7. Active and passive voice

The active voice emphasises the person doing the action of the verb in a sentence. The passive voice emphasises the recipient. For example:

  • Active voice: We checked the lab carefully each night to ensure that we left nothing out.

  • Passive voice: The lab was checked carefully each night, to ensure that nothing was left out.

The active voice is shorter and more straightforward: more concise.

There is more about this in our page on Active and Passive Voice.

8. Positive and negative

It is common to use negatives to express an idea in rhetoric. Consider John F. Kennedy’s famous speech about the moon:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard...”

Including ‘not because they are easy’ emphasises that these things are difficult, but that this is a deliberate choice. In a speech, this works well. In writing, it is less efficient. Similarly, you will often see writers use forms like ‘This is not only x, but also y’. This is both complicated and unnecessary.

Instead, switch to the positive, and use the form ‘This is both x and y’.

A Model to Emulate?

One possible model of conciseness is Clement Attlee, the prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1945 to 1951.

“He would never use one syllable when none would do.”

Douglas Jay on Clement Attlee, quoted by historian Peter Hennessy in a lecture at Gresham College in 1995

It is one approach to life and people. However, perhaps George Orwell’s six rules are rather more practical for most of us.