Sep 13 2007

How to Write Concisely

Published by at 10:54 pm under Generic Writing Guide,Writing Articles

This article addresses how to write concisely by revising or eliminating individual sentences.

Revising Individual Sentences

Let’s examine the needlessly long sentence “Writing concisely matters not only because it shortens the work but because it makes the work more readable.” This sentence has many problems.

“…it makes the work more readable.” This phrase is too wordy. Consider the alternative “it improves readability.” Tweaking word forms can often make a sentence more efficient.

“Writing concisely matters not only because it shortens the work…” Generally, explicitly saying that something matters is an unnecessary waste of space.  If you lay out the reasons it matters, readers will reach their own conclusion.

The original sentence was 15 words long. Consider this revision: “conciseness improves readability.” That distills what matters into an 80% cheaper product.

How to Eliminate Sentences Well

Question: I’ve looked at my sentences and can’t tighten any further. What now?

Let’s pretend that your individual sentences are perfectly concise. You need to find sentences that can be removed entirely or merged into other sentences.

But all my sentences are doing something important.

They’re probably not. However, when you look at individual sentences, it usually seems like each is productive. Consider the sentence “it’s raining.” It’s a short sentence and could be useful. But consider the sentence’s context. What if the paragraph were:

“Thunder crashed. John drew his umbrella. It’s raining.”

“It’s raining” is obviously unnecessary here, but that might not have been clear just looking at the sentence itself. To identify which sentences should be removed, we usually have to look at longer passages.

As a rule of thumb, I recommend examining sequences of ten sentences—that’s usually two or three paragraphs. Of the ten sentences, generally at least one can be eliminated.

Let me demonstrate this theory with the work of an authorial friend. This passage is an interesting description of a cop that’s investigating rumors of corporate shenanigans, but it isn’t as concise as it could be.

Harland ordered dinner, and settled into reading through the information gathered by the avatar. He called up Epp’s skills profile first, looking for justification for TeleComm’s offer of a senior contract. Epp had an outstanding background in both biomedical and software fields, a profile that Harland usually associated with companies and feeder universities in the instant transport field, rather than TeleComm’s data and communications segment. He remembered the scheduled takeover battle at Distance Instant Transport. Was TeleComm planning to take advantage of DIT’s management being distracted to make a push into instant transport? That would start a significantly wider corporate battle and active monitoring by WorldPol. He made a note to notify the Economic Management Group if things started looking more serious, and went down to the canteen to eat.

This is my rewrite.

Harland started sifting through the information his avatar had gathered on TeleComm’s new hire. Epp had outstanding biomedical and software skills, a profile more typical for the instant transport sector than TeleComm’s data and communications work. Epp’s hiring and the contested takeover at DIT suggested that TeleComm might be planning to push into instant transport when its competitor was in turmoil. He notified the Economic Management Council that a significantly broader corporate battle might be brewing.

The word count has dropped about about 150 to 100, but I don’t feel that the substance has changed considerably.

Avoiding Mistakes When Tightening

Although conciseness helps, it is possible to improperly tighten. Cutting out information may make it hard to follow the story or may make the plotline a lot more jagged. Cutting may also remove flavor. Compare “she unloaded a clip into his face” to “she shot him repeatedly.”

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