Principles of Concision

Good morning QualityGal writers! We hope you all had a great Labor Day weekend. Now that we’re back at the office, we wanted to share with you some helpful strategies to “tighten” up your writing, turning flabby sentences and paragraphs into lean, mean content machines! Although you can find these principles in many texts, the main source of these principles is The Basics of Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams, an amazing little book every writer should have on his or her bookshelf.

The fundamental concept today is: concision is precision. By that, we mean that the fewer words a writer uses, the clearer his or her writing is. Now, we’re not advocating leaving necessary ideas or content out, and we understand that assignments come with word counts. But if a writer writes something in twenty words and can say the same thing in ten, without losing any of his/her meaning, the writer should cut, cut, cut! After all, the best writing is REWRITING.

Here are four basic principles to help writers pare down their writing without sacrificing quality.

1) Eliminate redundancies.

Synonyms are great for paragraphs when a writer finds him/herself using the same word over and over. In an individual sentence, however, synonyms mainly “puff” up the word count without adding anything further in the way of meaning. Take a look at the example below:

  • Their software programs demonstrated and showed that many companies and businesses could benefit and profit from eliminating unnecessary overhead and expenses.

Now, let’s look at a pared down version that says the exact same thing:

  • Their software showed that companies could profit from eliminating unnecessary overhead.

Ask yourself: other than more words, what does the first offer a reader that the second does not? Nothing.

2) Take out needless words and phrases.

The English language is filled with words and phrases that are unnecessary and overly wordy. Take a look at the original phrase on the left and a more concise version on the right.

In the even that  = If

Due to the fact that  = Because

At the present time  = Now

In the not too distant future  =  Soon

Has (have) the ability to  =  Can, could

By means of  =  By, via

A large number of  = Many

A small number of = Few

Now, you might think we’re nitpicking, and maybe we are a little bit, but “puffy” phrases add up quickly and the more you can cut down or out, the better off your writing will be. Take a look at this sentence below:

  • In the event that I cannot learn to edit my own writing, my editors will in the not too distant future grow tired, due to the fact that at the present time they will have a large number of cuts to make and will wish I have the ability to do it myself.

And then compare it to the leaner version below:

  • If I can’t learn to edit my own writing, my editors will soon grow tired because now they will have many cuts to make and will wish I could do it myself.

Again, what does the first version offer the reader that second does not? Writers are servants to their readers and must always keep them in mind. Sometimes, less is more.

3) Delete what the reader can figure out themselves.

If a word or phrase can be taken out completely without confusing the reader in the least, then it doesn’t belong in the sentence.  Consider these examples below:

Original: The yellow colored hat was rather large in size.

Revised: The yellow hat was large.

Original: During the duration of the election, the candidate’s stature grew in popularity.

Revised: During the election, the candidate’s stature grew.

Original: When animals are hunted by predators, their primary responses are to flee or fight.

Revised: When hunted, animals’ responses are to flee or fight.

Again, none of the revised versions lack anything of real substance compared to the originals. As William Strunk wrote in The Elements of Style:

“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.”

4) Change Passive Sentences to Active.

Now we at QualityGal understand that sometimes it’s difficult to write certain sentences in the active voice. We’re not entirely against the use of the passive voice. We’re just mostly against it, and for two reasons:

  • The passive voice renders the object of a sentence into its subject and thus disguises agency: who does what and to whom.
  • The passive voice, due to its construction, adds unnecessary wordiness to sentences and thus violates the principle of concision.

Consider the two sentences below and compare them to their revised versions:

Original: Flowers were sent to my mother. (Object becomes subject, agency disguised)

Revised: I sent my mother flowers. (Subject is correct, agency clear)

Original: An accident was gotten into when a dog was hit by my car. (Overly wordy, awkward)

Revised: I got into an accident when I hit a dog with my car. (Concise, clear)

So now comes the million-dollar question that we know is on all your minds: if you have to cut words out of your articles, how do you reach your word counts? What do you replace the edited words with? To which we have a suggestion:

  • More ideas, more content, more research. Words alone do not make high-quality content. Ask yourself: if you were the reader, what would you want more of? More ideas or more words? The appearance of style or actual substance? Puff or actual pastry?

Photo by Ahbisek Sarda (Flickr)

“Did you cut all all unnecessary words and phrases from your article?”

The next time you’re working on an article, see if you can apply some of the principles to your own writing. We promise, with a little practice, these ideas will become second nature to you!!!

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5 comments on “Principles of Concision
  1. Debra Cornelius says:

    Thanks for the reminder. I (hope) I’m getting better at self-editing. Still need to keep it in mind and practice, practice, practice … ( Is that repeat, redundancy?) 😉

  2. Cheryl Hosmer says:

    Very nice reminder!

  3. Christine says:

    Thank you for the comments, we are hoping to make everyone’s job easier.
    We are in the process of testing out new editing software and once approved we will make it available to all of our writers. =)

  4. Cindi Nelson says:

    I am very impressed with the information you have provided on your website. I will certainly use the tips you suggested and thank you for simplifying your methods. Very helpful.

  5. QualityGal says:

    Good Morning Cindi, we’re glad you have found the materials helpful. Have a great day!