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:
Absolutelyessential”: “essential” implies “absolute”
Advancewarning”: a warning by definition occurs in advance
Addedbonus”: 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.
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.
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.
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
- Handout: "Writing Concisely," University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Writing Center
- Video (2:01): "Conciseness," University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Writing Center
- Article: "Sharp Pens Sharpen Swords: Writing for Professional Publications," Colonel John M. Collins, Military Review
- Purdue OWL (webpages):
- Article: "George Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing Clear and Tight Prose," Open Culture
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