How to write concisely: ten rules to make your writing lean

Conciseness is always desirable. It’s about removing unnecessary words and phrases without sacrificing clarity or appropriate detail. Here are three reasons why it’s important, and ten procedures to trim the fat. 

Why to write concisely

1. Busy readers

how to write concisely - commuters reading on a train

We live in a world of information overload. So imagine your reader as a time-pressed sceptic, ready to move onto the next thing at the slightest whim. Your job is to keep them reading, so make every word essential.

2. Diversity and inclusion

Not everyone who reads your work will have English as their first language. Also, dyslexic people will find long phrasing, sentences and paragraphs challenging. Keep these readers on board by staying concise.

3. Honesty

Which sounds the most convincing:

I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,

bill clinton i did not have sex with that woman

or:

I didn’t have sex with her?

Clinton could’ve used contractions (didn’t instead of did not), avoided euphemisms (have sexual relations) and wordiness (that woman, Miss Lewinsky) to sound more honest.

How to write concisely

1. Use short words

How to Sound Clever by Hubert van den Bergh defines 600 words “you pretend to understand, but really don’t”. It may be “a jaunty romp through the groves of vocabulary”, but your goal when writing is not to sound clever. It’s to communicate your message clearly. Avoid clever words.

Instead, use everyday, straightforward words. Why say innovative when you could say new? Or loquacious instead of talkative? Bin men and women probably don’t consider themselves Waste Management and Disposal Technicians. Neither does your reader.

This fits in with two of George Orwell’s Six Rules of Writing:

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do, and

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent

Your readers will understand you quicker when you use shorter words.

2. Use Anglo-Saxon words

anglo saxon words

The history of English means we have many synonyms (words that mean the same thing). Words with Anglo-Saxon roots often have a French or Latin equivalent. For example:

  • Ask/request
  • Buy/purchase
  • Follow/ensue
  • Freedom/liberty
  • Help/assistance

Anglo-Saxon was, and is, the language of the people, and French was the language of law and government. Use the everyday language you speak at home over formal language to sound more open and clear.

3. Use short sentences

I recently helped someone with a funding proposal that included the sentence:

Whether the community group’s objectives relate to reducing isolation, improving health and wellbeing, developing skills or just having fun, our officers work with them to increase their delivery skills, capacity and confidence.

One problem here is the sentence is ‘front loaded’. You have to store a lot information (the ‘whether’ part), before you get the the subject and action (‘our officers work with them’). Also 32 words is too long. A better sentence might be:

Our officers work with community groups with various objectives. These include reducing isolation, improving health and wellbeing, developing skills and just having fun. We help increase the groups’ delivery skills, capacity and confidence.

Aim for a maximum of 24 words per sentence, and vary your sentence length so you don’t sound monotonous.

4. Use short paragraphs

Long paragraph

Make sure each paragraph is about one idea.

Long blocks of text (the result of enterphobia) are painful to read and hard to understand.

Breaking paragraphs up gives ‘breathing room’ for the eyes and makes your document easier to scan and understand. Three or four sentences per paragraph is enough.

5. Use verbs rather than nouns

Verbs help us sound more active and vivid. Compare:

  • We achieved success through the conversion of leads with
  • We succeeded by converting leads.

Let verbs do the work, and don’t get nounitis.

6. Avoid tautology

Tautology is using two words or phrases that mean the same thing. For example:

  • In close proximity
  • A new initiative
  • A necessary requirement
  • To over-exaggerate
  • An added bonus

Save time for your reader by deleting repeated meanings when you proof read.

7. Avoid fluff

it's so fluffy - fluffy words in writing

Fluff is words and phrases that don’t add anything to your work. For instance:

  • At this moment in time can be shortened to Now
  • The reason why is that might be better as That’s because
  • The majority of can be edited to become Most
  • In the event that may be reduced to If

Reduce or eliminate adverbs and adjectives so you don’t slow your reader down.

8. Avoid empty words

Orwell’s third rule of writing is:

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

So use your editing knife:

She got the dress that she wanted.

Check for empty descriptors like very, quite and really that don’t add anything to what you’re trying to say. Make every word have weight and sound more wholesome.

9. Don’t be passive

The subject of a passive sentence is “the one who is acted upon”. For example, the road was crossed by the chicken is passive because the subject (the road) is acted on by the object (the chicken). Passive writing can make you sound boring. Compare:

If further products are required on the same order, requesting them should be done by telephone with

If you require further products on the same order, you should request them by telephone. 

Be active where possible. You can use The Hemingway App to identify the passive voice in your writing.

10. Don’t go off-piste

writing concisely - don't go off-piste

Finally, keep your writing focused by staying on topic. Your writing will be more powerful if your sentences, paragraphs and whole document are essentially about one idea. This is called unity.


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