that wordiness is the enemy of clear, energetic writing. Wordiness
makes your reader want to stop reading because of impatience, boredom,
or confusion. It also tends to confuse you as well: when
you have lost your way in an assignment, you will often find that
cutting the excess verbiage will allow you to see what you are really
saying, and seeing that will give you an idea how to continue.
Here are some tips for making your writing more concise:
vague modifiers with specific ones, and simple lists with lists accompanied
writing is almost always wordy. By sharpening details, you will
tend to eliminate wordiness automatically. Look how, in this
example, the author fills up space with vague adjectives (excellent, famous, brilliant, wonderful, amazing, memorable, great) without ever explaining why they
apply, and lists titles and characters without saying anything about
them. One really knows nothing more about the subject after
reading than one did before:
Example: The Great Gatsby is an excellent novel. F. Scott
Fitzgerald, who wrote The Great Gatsby and other famous
novels such as Tender is the Night and The Last Tycoon,
was a brilliant author. He created some wonderful characters and
amazing descriptions that still remain popular today. Among these
characters are Daisy and Tom Buchanan, Nick Carraway, George Wilson,
Myrtle Wilson, and of course Jay Gatsby himself. These memorable
characters help make The Great Gatsby a great achievement
in American literature.
The success of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby depends chiefly on its memorable characters, none of whom is wholly
admirable. Tom Buchanan is racist, violent, and perversely
sentimental. Daisy, despite her status as Gatsby’s ideal
woman, is emotionally shallow and self-absorbed. Nick Carraway
claims to be honest early in the novel, but by the end is swearing
not to lie to himself any more. Compared with these flawed
characters, Gatsby himself — despite his criminal activities
and quixotic love for a woman he barely knows — becomes not
just sympathetic but admirable because of his determination to re-create
himself according to his ideals.
revised version, the adjectives are much more specific. We can see
how the paper might develop each of these sentences into whole paragraphs
or more as the paper continues. Also, irrelevant details (the names
of Fitzgerald’s other novels, characters that the paper will
not bother to examine, the “amazing descriptions” that
have nothing to do with the paper’s real topic) have been cut
out. Now this paragraph actually says something.
Ironically, this actually helps you produce more content. Thus, eliminating wordiness helps you create more length, because (as I always say) length is created by depth, not breadth.
excessive use of to be, to have, and to do
are the three most common verbs in the English language; you need
them, but you should use them (and all their different forms)
as little as possible. Not only do these verbs tend to make
for wordy sentences, they barely qualify as actions, so over-using
them makes your writing dull. Seek out more specific, energetic
Many of drama’s central concepts were originally Aristotle’s
ideas and are in the Poetics.
Many of drama’s central concepts originated in Aristotle’s Poetics.
I was intending to do my studying for my history exam before I had
to go to my job, but I had no time.
Revised: I meant to study for my history exam before
my shift at TGIFriday’s started, but time ran out.
adverbial intensifiers for adjectives and adverbs sparingly
might think that using adverbial intensifiers — words such as extremely, considerably, rather, quite,
and very, among many others — makes the words
that come after them stronger. Paradoxically, however, it actually
makes them weaker by signaling your reader that you aren’t using
the right word and so have to somehow improve it with an intensifier.
That’s like slapping a fresh coat of paint on a house with a
rotten frame. Take the time to find the best word for your meaning
without needing to modify it. In doing so, you will generally
trade in a general adjective for a more specific one. Note:
you must be careful that the more specific adjective makes sense in
the context of the sentence. Do not use a thesaurus blindly;
just because two words have related meanings does not mean they are
Sam was extremely happy when Ellen walked in because that meant
she had decided not to go abroad for the summer.
Sam was ecstatic when Ellen walked in because that meant she had
decided not to go abroad for the summer.
Sometimes, you can replace a boring combination of verb, adverbial
intensifier, and adjective with a more descriptive verb or verb phrase
and the result will seem more energetic, even if the new phrase requires
For the students gazing out at the warm, sunny, freshly painted
playground, the hours went by very slowly.
Revised: For the students gazing out at the warm, sunny,
freshly painted playground, the hours crawled at a glacial pace.
Of all the intensifiers, very and really are the
most commonly overused. Students can fall into a pattern of
using them almost constantly. I suggest you try writing without
them for a while and see what happens. In particular, save really for when you mean “in reality” and avoid using it as an
unnecessary passive voice
normal sentence (active voice), a subject performs an action.
In a passive voice sentence, the subject does nothing; something
is done to it instead. The passive voice can be useful sometimes,
such as when you do not know who performed a certain action.
Saying “My car was stolen” is more natural than saying
“Someone stole my car” because the latter sentence puts
the emphasis on information you do not have. Also, presumably
you care more about your car than the person who stole it, so it makes
sense to start with My car.
Also, some disciplines use passive voice more often than others. Researchers will often use a construction such as “Respondents were asked” rather than “We asked the respondents,” or “One third of the patients in the study were given a placebo” rather than “We administered a placebo to one third of the patients. However, in most cases,
active voice sentences are preferable.
The cat was trained by Joanne to ring the doorbell if she wanted
to come in.
Joanne trained her cat to ring the doorbell if she wanted to come
who use the passive voice too often can sound weaselly, such as when
the politician says, “Mistakes were made.” (Who
made them is unimportant, apparently.) Yet most of us would
respect him more if he simply said, “I made a mistake.”
Students who phrase important points in the passive voice sound unsure
of their own arguments. Solve this problem by re-writing
the sentence in the active voice:
Both Henry James’s depiction of Lavinia Penniman and Ernest
Hemingway’s depiction of Robert Cohn can be considered parodies
Revised: I consider both Henry James’s depiction
of Lavinia Penniman and Ernest Hemingway’s depiction of Robert
Cohn parodies of Romanticism.
Revised further: Henry James’s depiction of Lavinia
Penniman and Ernest Hemingway’s depiction of Robert Cohn both
parody Romanticism. (No real reason to use the first person here.)
sentences and clauses starting with there is (and variations
such as there are, there was, there were, or there
beginning with “There is” or “There are” are
cases of inverted syntax. There isn’t the subject,
after all. When you say “There is the restaurant”
the subject is restaurant; in effect, you are saying, “The
restaurant is there,” and when you look at it that way, you
see how boring a sentence it is. It is the verbal equivalent
of pointing. Of course, if you are looking for a particular
restaurant and cannot find it, “There is the restaurant”
might be the sentence you would most like to hear, but in academic
work, merely pointing at something is a lost opportunity.
you can easily re-write a “There” sentence or clause to
make it more concise, either by re-arranging the words or by replacing
the “to be” verb with a more interesting one.
There are many things Calvino describes that did not exist during
Marco Polo and Kubla’s era.
Calvino describes many things that did not exist during Marco Polo
and Kubla Khan’s era.
I hope there will not be many more events for which I have to wear
I hope I will seldom attend events that require me to wear a tuxedo.
|Eliminate pointless first-person usage
Avoiding the first-person is a good way to make
your writing more concise. I do not object to occasional first-person usage, especially in listserv posts, but I suggest saving the first-person
for when you are either describing a personal experience (which is
extremely awkward to do without the first person) or you want
to make a distinction between an assertion and a speculation: write any assertion you are planning to support without using the
first-person, but when you want to share a more speculative opinion
with us you use the more personal voice.
Still, just writing I think that or something similar (see note about the first person on the Conventions page) at the start of a sentence is virtually never necessary. Presuming you have not quoted and cited a statement, we know you think it: your name is on the document.
Example: I think that Calvino’s point is that contemporary life is too fast-paced for most readers to indulge in long novels.
Calvino’s point is that contemporary life is too fast-paced for most readers to indulge in long novels.
| Remember that possessives
are automatically more concise than prepositional phrases and dependent
have a problem using possessives with proper nouns. The standard
phrasing to express that a suitcase belongs to Grace is Grace’s
suitcase, not the suitcase of Grace or even the
suitcase that belongs to Grace. Quite often, however, they
forget that the same applies to everyday nouns:
title of the novel changed several times, right up to publication.
The novel’s title changed several times, right up to publication.
The anger that her father felt was too fierce to be mollified
by a mere apology.
father’s anger was too fierce to be mollified by a mere
introducing a subject in a prepositional phrase and then using a pronoun
as the sentence’s grammatical subject
is one way to needlessly extend a sentence. It accomplishes
nothing except complicating your syntax.
In the scene in which Mrs Sloane attempts to invite Gatsby to dinner
only to be overruled by her husband, it shows how Gatsby’s
wealth and charisma are not enough to overcome the resistance of
the upper class.
The scene in which Mrs Sloane attempts to invite Gatsby to dinner
only to be overruled by her husband shows how Gatsby’s wealth
and charisma are not enough to overcome the resistance of the upper
the original sentence does not quite make sense, because the antecedent
for it is the scene, not something in the scene. As you can see, though, the good news here is that often
all that is required to fix the problem is to cut the preposition,
the pronoun, and the comma (if one is there). But even when
the sentence is grammatically fine, you will be better off simplifying
sentences and clauses starting with the it is [fill in the blank]
it is [fill in the blank] that construction in which the blank is an adjective is a rhetorical flourish
that works much better in speech than on the page. Change the
construction to an adverb or cut it entirely:
It is sad that her father died before he had a chance to see her
Sadly, her father died before he had a chance to see her on stage.
It is certain that smoking cigarettes regularly increases one’s
chances of developing emphysema and numerous types of cancer.
Smoking cigarettes regularly increases one’s chances of developing
emphysema and numerous types of cancer.
This is true regardless of tense (it was . . . that, it had been . . . that, and so on)
also applies to it is . . . how and when that is assumed, for example, it is probable she will win.
Note that the it is [fill in the blank] construction can sometimes be more acceptable when the blank is a noun or noun-phrase than when it is an adjective:
The detective had quickly settled on Dr. Prendergast as the likely killer and the dental floss as the means by which the strychnine was adminstered; it was the motive that eluded him.
This could be revised to remove the it is [fill in the blank] construction:
The detective had quickly settled on Dr. Prendergast as the likely killer and the dental floss as the means by which the strychnine was administered, but the motive eluded him.
However, this change alters the emphasis somewhat. Still, the times you need this effect will be rare, and even then using it too frequently eliminates any benefit.
unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, and modifying phrases
unnecessary word or phrase is redundant. Sometimes a word is
unnecessary because it is an adjective, adverb, or phrase whose meaning
is already part of the word being modified. For example, we
do not need to be told that a baby is young or little,
a battle is violent or fierce, a diamond-encrusted
watch is expensive, or corpses are dead.
Nor do we need to read that someone raced quickly or yelled
loudly or inched his way through the minefield carefully,
or that someone has chewed his food slowly with his teeth.
You can normally fix this problem simply by cutting.
George and Martha shout at each other angrily at many points throughout
the whole play, but say their most vicious phrases without raising
their voices in volume.
George and Martha often shout at each other, but say their most
vicious phrases without raising their voices.
using two or more nearly synonymous words in close proximity
two words instead of one does not make your writing more precise if
their meanings are similar. You may even annoy your reader,
who must then pause and figure out why the difference between the
words is important enough that you need both. Instead of using
two or three words that mean sort of what you intended, find more
specific modifiers. You may find you then have room for another
modifier that actually offers an additional piece of information.
Hamlet’s offering forgiveness to Laertes is a kind, generous,
and beneficent act.
Hamlet’s offering forgiveness to Laertes is a generous act.
For Hamlet to forgive Laertes is a generous and kingly act.
(These two adjectives are sufficiently distinct.)
The dinosaur skeleton lay before us: big, huge, and immense.
The dinosaur skeleton lay before us: huge and unimaginably
Jim and Danny had been good friends and comrades since they were
Jim and Danny had been good friends since childhood.
sequences of short sentences that have the same subjects
of short sentences with the same subjects can usually be combined:
Jason was proud of his car. He always took care of it.
He loved washing it. He carefully washed the outside every
week and then he dried the paint with a chamois. He would
wax it himself, too. He always put Armor-All on the dashboard
and door panels.
Jason was proud of his car and always took care if it, every week
carefully washing it and chamoising it dry, then waxing it, and
even putting Armor-All on the dashboard and door panels.
it is possible that you might want to use the first option in some
rare circumstances. All of those short sentences do slow your
readers down, and thus emphasize the meticulous care that Jason gave
his car. A sophisticated writer may well make a conscious decision
to do that. But in the vast majority of cases, combining the
sentences will avoid frustrating your reader.
|Consider making that, which, and who phrases part
of the main clause, especially if you can easily shorten them
may write a phrase beginning with that, which,
or who because it occurs to you separately from the main
idea of the sentence. In revision, however, the phrase will
often easily fit into the sentence’s main clause.
The rose bush, which had been growing in our back yard for years,
never looked more beautiful.
The old rose bush in our back yard never looked more beautiful.
Abby had never been close to her brother, who was a successful doctor
Abby and her brother, a successful Manhattan doctor, had never been
|Avoid weasel-words and phrases
Some words and phrases act only to make you sound unsure of your point, or as if you are trying to leave yourself an escape hatch: if someone argues with you, the phrasing allows you to pretend you did not really mean what you said. Chief among these is seem, a word that implies a difference between appearance and reality. If someone asks you whether you know Tim, and you say, “He seems nice,” one almost expects you to add “but I heard he may have drowned a puppy last week” a moment later. Rather than persuading your reader, in other words, seem makes him or her suspicious.
Example: Shelley’s depiction of Keats in the introduction he appended to “Adonaïs” seems to be more a case of projection than an accurate character sketch.
Revised: Shelley’s depiction of Keats in the introduction he appended to “Adonaïs” is more a case of projection than an accurate character sketch.
Revised further: Shelley’s depiction of Keats in the introduction he appended to “Adonaïs” — far from being an accurate character sketch — is pure projection.
This last version puts the most stress on the word projection, which is the key concept in this sentence.
Seem is appropriate when you are actually trying to stress the difference between appearance and reality:
Example: Heller’s rejection of chronological structure in Catch-22 is necessary so that Yossarian seem either cowardly or insane at first: the reader does not have any clue how much provocation he has endured before the first chapter begins.
The word almost can cause a similar problem, unless you are using it in a phrase like he served almost nine years on Devil’s Island before he was pardoned. That is fine, but weak writers often use it merely to weaken an analogy indicated by like or as if:
Example: The accused demonstrated so many of the symptoms of melancholy, it is almost as if he was copying Hamlet.
Revised: The accused demonstrated so many of the symptoms of melancholy, one would think he was copying Hamlet.
While seem and almost can occasionally serve a useful purpose, the same is not true of phrases such as in a way, kind of, sort of, a little, a bit, and more or less. These phrases weaken whatever point you are trying to make. They usually indicate some uncertainty on your part; they make you sound as if you have not thought through your point enough to be comfortable with it, and if you are not comfortable with it, your reader will not be either. If your point is otherwise persuasive, these phrases will make your reader doubt it; if your reader already is skeptical of your point, these phrases will only reinforce the skepticism.
Of course, good arguments are nuanced and often require that you acknowledge counter-arguments and exceptions. But the way to do that is by being clear and specific, not to turn make your own point sound spineless.
tenses are usually preferable to progressive tenses
tenses — because they are formed from a combination of a helping
verb and a participle — always require one more word than simple
tenses, and the extra word is necessarily a form of to be.
In most cases, simple tenses are (as the word suggests) simpler and
Geraldine is putting Christabel in the position of a groom by feigning
illness so that Christabel will carry her over the threshold, which,
as in a traditional vampire story, she cannot cross on her own.
Revised: Geraldine puts Christabel in the position
of a groom by feigning illness so that Christabel will carry her
over the threshold, which, as in a traditional vampire story, she
cannot cross on her own.
the progressive tense for when you are stressing simultaneity, meaning
that one thing happens while another is happening:
the time Dr. Watson believed Holmes was dead after his final clash
with Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls, Holmes was actually taking advantage
of his presumed death in order to destroy the rest of Moriarty’s
same rules apply to the past and future forms of the progressive tense
up series of long, complex sentences with an occasional simple sentence
many long sentences in a row — whether compound, complex, or
compound-complex — are wearying. Never underestimate the
value of simple sentences; they give your readers a welcome break
and make your writing more energetic.
Because of its maneuverability and firepower, the Fokker DRI triplane
was one of the most feared planes of World War I. In a skilled pilot’s hands, a Fokker on the prowl became a fearsome weapon.
A German pilot in a Fokker could out-climb and out-turn all the
French and British planes he faced, and with two machine guns out-shoot
them as well. But the plane’s weakness was its comparatively
poor straight-line speed and diving ability, which meant that it
could not turn and run if the battle went badly or Allied reinforcements
Revised: Because of its maneuverability and firepower,
the Fokker DRI triplane was one of the most feared planes of World War I. In a skilled pilot’s hands, a Fokker on the prowl became
a fearsome weapon. A German pilot in a Fokker, could out-climb and
out-turn all the French and British planes he faced, and with two
machine guns out-shoot them as well. But the plane had a weakness.
Its comparatively poor straight-line speed and diving ability meant
that it could not turn and run if the battle went badly or Allied
the last sentence into two, one of which is only six words, gives
the reader a break and emphasizes the point that the plane had a weakness.
that English is a tree with two major roots: Latin and Anglo-Saxon
words that have their roots in Latin typically sound more elegant
and sophisticated than those that have their roots in Germanic languages.
People speaking Latin and Romance languages sound cultured; people
speaking German sound as if they have bronchitis and are trying to
cough something up. However, those short, harsh, Germanic words
are effective at cutting quickly to the point. Use them.
By a determined application of effort and careful husbandry of my
finances, I hoped to accumulate sufficient capital to purchase a
new vehicle before the autumn semester began.
Revised: By working hard and watching every dollar,
I hoped to save the money for a new car before the fall semester.
words and phrases that have no meaning, or undercut your meaning
words and phrases are the written equivalent of the “uhhhh”
some people use to fill the silences between their words: they
add neither substance nor style. They also often undercut the rest of the
sentence. Cut them ruthlessly. This list is by no means
exhaustive, but it is a start:
|Word or Phrase
||Why You Shouldn’t Use It
say something is able to do something if you can just say
it does it? Doing it presumes the ability. Using able
to makes more sense of the action is never taken: “Cheryl
is able to afford to go to Paris this summer, but she has
decided to take an internship at a local company instead.”
Even here, though, why not just use can instead of is able to?
the start of a clause, sentence, or worst of all a paragraph, this transition
indicates you are beginning to bore even yourself.
can tell you
bother telling us? Wouldn’t we know already?
usually raises more questions than it answers; what made
it turn out this way?
old saying goes
that you are about to use a cliché
word is misleading, since it usually does not mean in
a basic manner, but merely announces that you know you
are being vague and are too lazy to bother being more exact.
then we would know already, but this phrase is usually an attempt
to imply strength of numbers.
||Calling something interesting never is. It is a little like announcing you are about to tell “a funny joke.” If the point truly is interesting or the joke is funny, it doesn’t need to be labeled as such. Besides, people take an interest in all kinds of things you might personally not find interesting. Your task is to make interesting points, not tell us that the points you make are interesting.
||same as basically
people? What if the people who say that are idiots?
Note, too, that this phrase often indicates you are about
to create a straw-man argument by refuting what these namelss
||same as basically
|you (or one) might
are you, psychic? Besides, readers usually do not like it when a writer assumes
they are making an error. This is virtually always a segue
to a straw-man argument.
familiar wordy phrases with shorter equivalents
phrases are always wordy. Generally, these phrases tend to originate
in specialized applications such as legal contracts; every profession
develops its own jargon. Whence they derive matters less than that
you cut them.
the present time
the fact that
although, even though, while
to the fact that
(or to) all intents and purposes
the purpose of
(or how in some cases)