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Concision


Concision is among the most frequently touted properties of effective writing, and with good reason: reading is hard work, and readers generally don’t want to sift through superfluous language or material to extract the meaning of your text.

We often think of concision as the opposite of “wordiness”—using more words than necessary to communicate a point. That’s not a bad rule of thumb. Take these phrases, for example, which include words that add nothing to their meaning:

  • Absolutely essential”: “essential” implies “absolute”
  • Advance warning”: a warning by definition occurs in advance
  • Added bonus”: a bonus is always something additional
  • “Alternative choice”: these words serve equivalent functions; we only need one

Trimming out unneeded words will greatly contribute to the concision of your writing.

 

Putting the action of the sentence in a verb

Another technique for achieving concision is to make sure the action of the sentence is located in the verb(s):

The data are first put through a processing phase, after which point an analysis is performed on the data.

The verbs here are “are put” and “is performed,” but they don’t really convey our sense of what’s happening in this sentence—namely, processing and analyzing.

Depending on which words are essential to the meaning of this sentence, it can probably be much more concise:

  • “are . . . put through a processing phase” could be shortened to “are processed”
  • “an analysis is performed” can be shortened to “analyzed”
  • “after which point” = then

The resulting sentence might read something like this one:

The data are processed and then analyzed.

 

Here’s a somewhat more complex example that combines the issues we’ve discussed so far:

The cornerstone to the government providing essential emergency services to its citizens is ensuring there has been effective planning to anticipate a variety of challenges to deliver these critical services.

It just sounds wordy, right? And, indeed, there’s a lot we can condense or remove here:

  • “Effective planning” would surely involve “anticipat[ing] a variety of challenges.”
  • “providing essential emergency services” and “deliver[ing] critical services” refer to the same idea; do we need both?
  • “The cornerstone . . . is,” an expression that indicates something is essential, can be replaced with a more precise and literal verb like “must” or “requires.”
  • “ensuring there has been effective planning”: the action here seems to be “planning”; let’s make that a verb as well.

Assembling these revisions might result in a sentence like the following, with fewer words and more clarity:

To provide essential emergency services to its citizens, the government must plan effectively.

 

Sometimes, more is better

It’s important to note, though, that concision is not simply a matter of using fewer words: fewer is not always better. Rather, concise writing expresses ideas compactly but also clearly, avoiding redundancy and superfluity but without sacrificing precision.

 

Noun Clusters

Take, for example, this sentence, which ends in a noun cluster—a clump of nouns with no words in between explaining how they relate to each other:

Another critical consideration is adversary detection prevention.

What’s going on here? Are we concerned with adversaries not being able to see us or vice versa? “Adversary detection prevention” encompasses few words, but it’s also ambiguous; compare these sentences, which use more words but are also clearer:

  • Another critical consideration is preventing adversaries from detecting dismounted forces.
  • Another critical consideration is that dismounted forces might be unable to detect adversaries.

 

Passive Voice

The passive voice also challenges the notion that “fewer is better.” This sentence is in the passive voice:

The most authoritative account of the Great Umbrella Tariffs of 1810–13 was written by Philippa von Phrasewitz in the years immediately following those storied events.

Changing the verb to active voice shortens the sentence slightly—makes it nominally more concise:

Philippa von Phrasewitz wrote the most authoritative account of the Great Umbrella Tariffs of 1810–13 in the years immediately following those storied events.

But leaving it in passive voice and removing the “by” phrase also results in a shorter sentence—the shortest of all; this one, though, is less clear, as we no longer know who is performing the action:

The most authoritative account of the Great Umbrella Tariffs of 1810–13 was written in the years immediately following those storied events.

 

In conclusion

Concision is a worthy goal, but your overriding object as an academic writer is clarity. Careful concision can contribute substantially to clarity, while excessive concision—rotely seeking to minimize word count—can obscure or withhold essential information. The key to clear, concise writing is removing anything that is unnecessary and nothing that is not.

 

More Thoughts on Concision

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All-Topics Index


The following index makes searching for a specific topic easier and links to the appropriate place in the sequenced material. We think we have most of them, but please email us at writingcenter@nps.edu if we are missing something!

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A

abbreviations

abstracts

academic writing

acronyms

active voice

apostrophes

argument

article usage

assignments, understanding them

audience

 

B

body paragraphs

brainstorming

building better sentences tips

 

C

citations

citation styles

clarity

clustering

coaching sessions, about

colons

commas, FANBOYS

commas, introductory

commas, list

commas, nonessential elements

commas, Oxford

commonly confused words 

compare-and-contrast papers 

concision

conclusions

conjunctive adverbs

coordinating conjunctions

copyright and fair use

critical thinking  

 

D

dangling modifiers

dashes

dependent marker words

double submission of coursework

drafting

 

E

edit your own work

editing – outside editors

exclamation points

executive summary

 

F

FANBOYS

FAQs

footnotes

free-writing

 

G

gerunds

grammar

group writing

 

H

hyphens

 

I

ibid.

introductions

 

J

Joining the Academic Conversation

 

L

LaTeX

library liaisons 

literature reviews 

logic and analysis 

 

M

memos

methodologies

 

N

note-taking

numbers

 

O

organization

outlining

Oxford comma

 

P

paragraph development 

parallelism

paraphrasing

parts of speech

passive voice

periods

persuasion

phrases and clauses

plagiarism, how to avoid through citations

plain language

polishing

prepositional phrases 

prepositions

pronouns

punctuation

purpose of research

 

Q

questions

quotation marks 

quoting

 

R

reading with intent

redundancies                                                                

reference software

reflection papers 

research

research questions

reverse outlining 

revising passive voice into active voice

revision

roadmaps                                            

run-on sentences 

 

S

self-citing

semi-colons

subjects, grammatical

significance

so-what?

spelling

standard essay structure

STEM/technical writing 

style

subject/verb agreement

 

T

technical writing

that vs. which

thesis writing

thesis advisors

thesis process overview

thesis process tips

thesis proposals – common elements                                                     

thesis statements

tone, professional

topic sentences 

transitions

types of papers

 

U

United States or U.S.?

 

V

verbs and verb tense

 

W

which vs. that

Why write?

writer’s block 

writing process