Editing III: Conciseness

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. –William Strunk, Jr., U.S. writer and educator (1869-1946)

The cise root in conciseness means “cut.” It is the same root you see in incision. When you make your writing concise, you cut out unnecessary words. When you revised the content of your piece, you cut ideas that did not contribute to your purpose. When you edit, you probably will cut few — if any — whole sentences. Instead, you will look for ways to communicate your ideas with fewer words. We are not talking about making your writing sound like a telegram, with unimportant little words omitted. Neither are we talking about eliminating description that adds vividness to your message — or repeated words that create an emotional impact.

We will look at eight ways you can eliminate words without losing any meaning. This will, in fact, strengthen your message. When fewer words say the same thing, those words are more powerful. As Robert Southey, English poet laureate of the 1800s, wrote, “If you would be pungent, be brief; for it is with words as with sunbeams. The more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.”

Eliminate Repetitive Expressions

The first step in achieving conciseness is to avoid unnecessary repetition. The following phrases, though they might sound familiar, should be avoided:

the exact same thing
all throughout
throughout the entire
sum total
a.m. in the morning
true facts
past experience
future plans
free gift
completely surrounded
close proximity
consensus of opinion
basic fundamentals
originally began
refer back
cooperate together
round in shape
blue in color
five in number

Although this list is by no means complete, it should alert you to the kinds of expressions to avoid.

Use Simple, Direct Language

Another way to improve conciseness is to use simple, direct language:

Instead of: Say:

at this point in time                              now
at the earliest possible moment            soon
in order that                                        so
in the event that                                   if
in the neighborhood of                        about
in the amount of                                  for
in the normal course of procedure       normally
in view of the fact that                         since
despite the fact that                             although
we are not in a position to                   we cannot
will you be kind enough to                   please
we are cognizant of the fact that           we know
this letter is for the purpose of              (omit; get to the point)

These are just a few examples of the many weighty expressions that have crept into our language. Watch for more.

Make the Subject and Verb the Core of Your Sentence

You will be well on your way to conciseness if your subject and verb include the main idea of your sentence. Compare the two sentences below:

It is essential that we take these precautions if our crews are to be safe.

We must take these precautions for our crews’ safety.

In addition to including more words, the first sentence in the pair contains three clauses — compared to one in the second sentence.

Use Active Voice

Because active voice is shorter and livelier than passive voice, you should use it for most of your writing. In active voice the subject performs the action:

Sam cooked dinner. [Sam, the subject, did the cooking.]

In passive voice the subject receives the action — just as anything that is passive receives action:

Dinner was cooked by Sam.

Passive voice includes a form of to be plus the past participle of the verb. Therefore, the verb is longer in passive voice than in active voice. If the agent is stated, a prepositional phrase also lengthens the sentence.

Although active voice is usually preferable, passive voice does have its place. It is appropriate in scientific or technical writing in which the performer of the action is unimportant or unknown:

The temperature was raised to 100 degrees Celsius.

The bank was robbed last night.

Be Positive Rather Than Negative

He doesn’t do anything to help me.

He does nothing to help me.

Repetition of a form of do in the first sentence signals that the sentence can be tightened. Saying what he does instead of what he doesn’t do is also more effective.

Avoid Qualifiers

I think this book would probably be a good resource for you.

This book will be a good resource for you.

Imagine each of these sentences in a sales pitch. In the first sentence, think, would, and probably weaken the recommendation. In addition, the subject and verb of the independent clause of the first sentence are I think — hardly the core of the sentence. The first sentence buries the most important part of the message in a dependent clause.

Use Specific Verbs

I fastened the papers with a staple.

I stapled the papers.

Notice how the use of a more specific verb (stapled in place of fastened) results not only in fewer words but also in a simpler construction; a prepositional phrase has been eliminated.

Avoid There is and There are

In this building there are five elevators that await inspection.

Five elevators in this building await inspection.

Again, construction is simpler; a dependent clause has been eliminated. (Use of there is or there are is sometimes unavoidable.)

Final Editing Concerns

Any editing change may necessitate other changes. Therefore, after any change you should recheck your composition (at least the paragraph where the change was made). Be sure to read what is on the page, not what you want to be on the page. Read aloud slowly, and point to each word as you read.

If you have been working on a computer or word processor that has a program to check spelling, be sure to use it. Keep in mind, however, that this will not catch all spelling errors. While it is great at identifying groups of letters that do not constitute words, it will not tell you whether you have the right word. You still need to carefully check homophones (their and there, for example). You should also check for typographical errors, such as they for the.

In addition, you should make sure that certain consistencies are maintained. Your point of view should be consistent. If you are using first person (I), you should use it consistently rather than shift back and forth between first person and third. You should also maintain a consistent level of seriousness (or light-heartedness) and formality (or informality). Tense (time) should be consistent, too. For example, if you are recounting a story, you should decide whether you will use past tense or present tense. Of course, if you are talking about different times, different tenses are appropriate.

Regardless of your expertise with English, if you will publish your work, you should enlist the services of a professional editor (who will begin work after you have already done your best). Even if you will not publish your work, you might want someone knowledgeable in English to check for errors — especially if you do not consider English mechanics to be one of your strong areas.

Next week: “Packaging” Your Message


A. Read more about conciseness in your handbook.

B. Look for ways to make your composition more concise:
1. Eliminate redundancies.
2. Use simple, direct language.
3. Make the subject and verb the core of your sentence.
4. Use active voice whenever possible.
5. Be positive rather than negative.
6. Avoid qualifiers.
7. Use specific verbs.
8. Avoid There is and There are.

C. Changes that you make for conciseness may necessitate other changes. Read carefully through your composition, checking especially for errors in wording and punctuation.

D. Do not send your composition to your instructor. Detailed feedback on individual projects is beyond the scope of this course.

Lecture 6 Quiz