July 30, 2010
Writing succinctly, using as few words as necessary, is probably the biggest challenge facing most writers. Most of us use words and phrases in writing that we would never use when speaking. However once we’ve written the words, we feel like we are going in the wrong direction if we remove them. Yet, one big advantage writing offers over speaking is that we can refine our message, making it as succinct as possible.
We need to be succinct for several reasons, after all our readers are busy and we don’t have the right to waste their time. If our writing is too verbose our readers may start skimming and might miss an important point. Even worse, our readers may not understand what we are saying at all. For example the following statement came from an Engineering proposal trying to win a large construction contract.
Calculations of adequate ventilation for process buildings to establish the minimum air introduction rate to achieve adequate ventilation for each process building, in order to define the minimum air introduction rate required to classify the building as Zone 2.
This sentence is 39 words long, and I don’t think it’s even a sentence. But what it’s trying to say is very simple:
Calculate the ventilation required to classify process buildings as Zone 2.
That took 11 words, and I’ll bet you read them all.
Long sentences aren’t necessarily wordy, and short sentences are necessary concise. A sentence is wordy if it uses more words than necessary. There are a few common writing habits that lead to wordiness:
Compound prepositional phrases are phrases that have more than one preposition.
A preposition is a word like about, by, and of, that shows how a noun or pronoun relates to another part of the sentence. Prepositions are always part of a prepositional phrase (the proposition and the object of the preposition). For example:
The spider crawled along the banister.
In this sentence, along is the preposition and along the banister is the prepositional phrase.
Prepositions are important, but we get into trouble when we use a prepositional phrase that needs another preposition; creating a compound prepositional phrase. Here are some common examples:
There are a number of options to help us remove compound prepositional phrases.
Usually we can change the compound prepositional phrase to a simple preposition. For example:
In order to write more concisely, eliminate compound prepositional phrases.
To write more concisely, eliminate compound prepositional phrases.
Here are some of the simplifications we can make.
|Compound prepositional phrase||Simplified|
|at that point in time||then, now|
|by means of||by|
|by reason of||because of|
|during the course of||during|
|from the point of view of||from, for|
|in accordance with||by, under|
|in relation to||about, concerning|
|on the basis of||by, from|
|with reference to||about, concerning|
|for the purposes of||for, under|
|in favour of||for|
|in terms of||in|
Sometimes we can eliminate the preposition entirely. For example:
At this point in time, we are writing well.
Now we are writing well.
In this last example, the compound prepositional phrase at this point in time was replaced with the adverb now.
Another technique to remove compound prepositional phrases is to convert them into a participle. A participle is a word formed from a verb, e.g., going, gone, being, been. Sometimes we can convert the compound prepositional phrase into a participle. For example:
In an attempt to write a concise report, he omitted important facts.
Attempting to write a concise report, he omitted important facts.
Here are some other conversions we can make.
|Compound prepositional phrase||Participle|
|In the attempt to||Attempting|
|In the fear of failure||Fearing failure|
|In response to||Responding to|
Some compound prepositional phrases can be converted to adverbs. For example:
His actions were under close control.
His actions were closely controlled.
Here are some other examples of conversions we can make.
|Compound prepositional phrase||Adverb|
|of critical acclaim||Critically acclaimed|
|the victim of a brutal attack||Brutally attacked|
|under the mistaken assumption||Mistakenly assumed|
Some compound prepositional phrases can be converted to adjectives. For example:
The response of the committee was silence.
The committee’s response was silence.
Here are some other examples of conversions we can make.
|Compound prepositional phrase||Adjective|
|The nature of humans||Human nature|
|The loss of time||Lost time|
|Manner of speaking||Speaking manner|
Another source of wordiness is using redundant words in our sentence; phrases like cooperate together, basic essentials, and true fact are some common examples. Watch for words that say the same thing twice, for example:
It was an unexpected surprise when a pair of baby twins was born at 12 midnight.
All surprises are unexpected, twins are always in pairs, only babies are born, and midnight is 12. A much more concise statement is:
It was a surprise when twins were born at midnight.
Also watch for modifiers that have meaning suggested by other words in the sentence. For example:
She sat down in the chair.
He very hurriedly scrubbed his hands before supper.
Here are some common redundant phrases to watch for.
Our speech often includes empty words and phrases that we use out of habit and to give us time to think about what we are going to say next. We need delete these from our writing. Here are some common ones you will hear, and may even use, but that should never remain in your writing.
Keeping your writing succinct not only saves our reader’s time, but it gives our writing energy and momentum. William Strunk said it well when he stated:
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”