Concision

Ask Yourself

Are your words necessary and precise? Can you remove any or replace it with something simpler or more specific?

Wondering how to use the Concision Guide?

Need help fixing a Concision issue? Curious why WriteLab recommended changing a word or phrase? The answer is here. Take a look at the Table of Contents or simply scroll through to find a helpful entry. If you just want a Concision overview, however, then try the Concision Introduction.



Introduction to Concision: Necessity and Precision

Writing is a natural extension of thinking. Because of this, first drafts often become cluttered with unnecessary words. We can achieve concision by identifying and removing those words, granting more importance to words necessary to the meaning of your sentences.

A. The cat was not very large, and he was so small that he easily slipped through the hole in the fence without much difficulty.

This sentence contains some redundancy, which we can avoid:

B. The cat was so small that he easily slipped through the the hole in the fence.

Concision isn't only a matter of brevity. A sentence may be short without being concise, or long without being cluttered. Vague, hesitant, and redundant words inhibit concise language not because they take up too much space on the page, but because they are imprecise.

A. Law enforcement makes it difficult for criminals to get things done.

B. Law enforcement discourages criminal activity.

The issue here isn't redundancy, but specificity. The word "makes" is vague and should be replaced, and the end of the first sentence is uninformative. The word "discourages" is more specific than "makes," and "criminal activity" is more specific than "things.”

Concision asks you to consider words that might be unnecessary or imprecise. In some cases, you can delete these words or introduce more precise terms to replace vague, empty ones.


Unnecessary Words

When we write a first draft, we write down whatever comes to mind, hoping that it will turn out to be relevant. This is an important part of drafting. It helps us get our ideas on paper; sometimes, it even helps us develop our ideas further. But it makes for a cluttered draft. When it's time to condense and refine your prose, you may find that some of the words you used are unnecessary.


IDENTIFYING REDUNDANCY

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

Don't say something twice if you only need to say it once. Explain, don't repeat.

The Long Version

It's common to find yourself using the same words to describe a concept again and again. Repetition is common in early drafts as we work to develop our ideas, and can be a productive part of the writing process. When you are editing the final draft, however, it is important to eliminate redundancy. We recommend that you take time to articulate your meaning without relying on the same words.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
He provided a full and complete account of the film.

Revision:
He provided a complete account of the film.

Explanation:
The adjectives "full" and "complete" mean the same thing. We don't need both, so we removed one of them.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
The characters are deliberate and strategic.

Revision:
The characters are strategic.

Explanation:
The adjectives "deliberate" and "strategic" have similar but not identical meanings. You can be deliberate without being strategic, but you can't be strategic without being deliberate. We decided to keep "strategic" and delete "deliberate." By choosing the more inclusive word, we can convey the same information more concisely.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
Against the backdrop of the revolution, which, as a mass movement, was not dominated by any one person, the author describes three powerful individuals.

Revision:
Against the backdrop of the revolution, a movement not dominated by any one person, the author describes three powerful individuals.

Explanation:
In this instance, redundancy is evident not in two words with similar meanings, but in a clause and a phrase. To revise, we can delete the phrase and rewrite the clause.


MANAGING ADVERBS

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

Whenever possible, don't use adverbs.

The Long Version

Adverbs describe verbs. When used well, they can make your prose descriptive and vivid. When overused, however, they can make your prose redundant, cluttered, and weak. Adverbs should always contribute to the meaning of your sentence.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
I will completely finish my reading by Monday.

Revision:
I will finish my reading by Monday.

Explanation:
It is redundant to say "completely finish." We can delete the adverb, "completely," to make the sentence more concise.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
I will hopefully pass the course.

Revision:
I hope to pass the course.

Explanation:
By changing the adverb "hopefully" to the verb "hope," we can replace the empty verb "will" with the stronger verb "hope" while saying the same thing.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
The 6.0 earthquake thoroughly demolished the poorly constructed building.

Revision:
The 6.0 earthquake demolished the poorly constructed building.

Explanation:
The verb “demolished” does not need to be modified by the adverb “thoroughly” because “demolished” already indicates complete wreckage. We retain the adverb “poorly” in the revision because it contributes to the meaning of the sentence.


MODIFYING ADJECTIVES WITH NEGATIVES

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

Don't use a negative plus a positive adjective when you can simply use a negative version of that adjective.

The Long Version

Negatives such as "not" can clutter your writing when used to describe adjectives. When you use a negative (for instance, "not") to describe an adjective (for instance, "successful"), you are using an extra word. You can make your point more emphatically if you use a negative adjective instead. For instance, you might change "not successful" to "unsuccessful." (Bear in mind that not all adjectives have negative versions; if your adjective doesn't have a negative version, you're stuck with "not."

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
The vacation was not pleasant.

Revision:
The vacation was unpleasant.

Explanation:
The revision is shorter, easier to understand, and sounds more confident.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
The unfortunate collapse of the bridge was not unforeseen by city planners.

Revision:
The unfortunate collapse of the bridge was foreseen by city planners.

Explanation:
The first sentence modifies a negative adjective ("unforeseen") with a negative word ("not"). We avoid stating that the city planners foresaw the collapse of the bridge and did nothing to prevent it. We do not assign blame or responsibility. Readers might have to reread the sentence to understand that the city planners did, indeed, foresee the collapse.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
The talented young chef was not known before the critic gave the restaurant a five-star rating.

Revision:
The talented young chef was unknown before the critic gave the restaurant a five-star rating.

Explanation:
Placing the negative “not” in front of the adjective “known” makes the original sentence cluttered and less emphatic. We use the adjective “unknown” to make the revised sentence concise and easier to understand.


USING ADJECTIVES WITH INFINITIVES

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

Whenever possible, don't combine adjectives with infinitives.

The Long Version

An infinitive is the basic form of a verb: for example, "to read," "to write," and "to sing." When an adjective precedes the infinitive form of a verb, it pushes the verb away from the subject of the sentence. Ideally, verbs should be as close as possible to their subjects.

It is often unnecessary to combine adjectives with infinitives.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
It would be helpful to consider the engineer's code.

Revision:
It would help to consider the engineer's code.

Explanation:
The adjective is "helpful." The infinitive is "to consider." By turning the adjective "helpful" into the verb "help," we can delete the empty verb "be."

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
I find horror movies terrifying to watch.

Revision 1:
I am terrified by watching horror movies.

Revision 2:
Watching horror movies terrifies me.

Revision 3:
Horror movies terrify me.

Explanation:
The adjective is "terrifying" and the infinitive verb is "to watch." To revise, we change the "terrifying" into a verb form ("terrified" and "terrify"). Once we've turned "terrifying" into a verb, we don't need to include "watching" in the sentence at all.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
I found it enjoyable to be eating a banana split sundae.

Revision:
I enjoyed eating a banana split sundae.

Explanation:
The adjective, “enjoyable,” used with the infinitive, “to be” pushes the subject, “eating a banana split sundae,” to the end of the sentence. To revise, we deleted “to be” and used the verb form of "enjoyable", “enjoyed.”


Empty Words

Each word has a unique meaning, a meaning that differs, no matter how slightly, from that of any other word. When we draft, we often don't take the time to think about which word best expresses our meaning. Instead, we jot down the first word that comes to mind and move on with our thought.

But as we polish our prose, we have an opportunity to begin to think about the precise meanings of the words we use. Which word best conveys the nuances of your thought? Which best suits this sentence's meaning and implication? As we ask ourselves these questions, we can begin to replace vague, general, or weak words with words that are precise, specific, and strong.


FINDING SUPERFLUOUS MODIFIERS

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

Whenever possible, don't use modifiers.

The Long Version

Some modifiers are empty words — unneeded words that don't add meaning to your sentence. These superfluous modifiers appear frequently as we begin to draft our sentences. But as you hone your writing, you will find that these words add little, if anything, to your sentences. More often than not, you will find that superfluous modifiers detract from the direction and impact of your prose.

Superfluous modifiers are a type of hedge word. Hedge words are empty words that don't add meaning to a sentence. Because they leave open the possibility that the writer may be wrong, we use hedge words to avoid committing to our argument. Superfluous modifiers have a more specific purpose: we use them, often automatically, while trying to think of something to say.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
Basically, the revolution stopped when a dictator took power.

Revision:
The revolution stopped when a dictator took power.

Explanation:
The adverb "Basically" adds nothing to either the substance or the impact of the sentence.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
It is generally a good idea to eat at least one of Susanne's warm cookies a day.

Revision:
It is a good idea to eat at least one of Susanne's warm cookies a day.

Explanation:
"Generally" (an adverb) adds nothing to the sentence.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
For all intents and purposes, the school year was over.

Revision:
The school year was over.

Explanation:
The introductory phrase in the first sentence is unnecessary.


MANAGING HEDGE WORDS

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

Don't hedge. Say what you mean without equivocation.

The Long Version

Hedge words are empty words — unneeded words that don't add meaning to a sentence. Because they leave open the possibility that writers may be wrong, serving as a sort of disclaimer, writers use hedge words to avoid fully committing to their arguments.

We hope that you will believe enough in your arguments to write it with confidence. If you find yourself relying on hedge words, then you may want to reconsider your argument.

Superfluous modifiers are a type of hedge word. Writers use hedge words to avoid committing to whatever they're saying. More than occasionally, we clutter our drafts with superfluous modifiers when trying to think of something to say.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
In most cases, you should believe enough in what you're saying to say it with confidence.

Revision:
You should believe enough in what you're saying to say it with confidence.

Explanation:
In this example, the hedge phrase "In most cases" is superfluous. It contributes little if anything to the point and impact of the sentence. We can eliminate the hedge words, tightening the sentence and making it more effective.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
If you find that you don't actually believe what you're saying, we recommend that you reconsider your argument.

Revision:
If you find that you don't believe what you're saying, we recommend that you reconsider your argument.

Explanation:
To condense the sentence, we have eliminated the hedge word "actually."

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
His baking skills are not exactly relevant to his bioengineering job.

Revision:
His baking skills are not relevant to his bioengineering job.

Explanation:
In the original sentence, “exactly” is a hedge word that prevents us from fully committing to our statement that “his baking skills are not relevant to his bioengineering job.”


REVISING EMPTY VERBS

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

Use the most specific, descriptive verbs possible.

The Long Version

An empty verb lacks clarity and specificity. You can substitute empty verbs with stronger verbs — verbs that are unique to the situation you're describing.

A common empty verb is "to be," and its various forms.

Empty verbs are "empty" because they are overused. In some cases it can be difficult to revise an empty verb with a more specific verb. In these cases, the empty verb is acceptable, but we recommend using more precise verbs wherever possible.

Other empty words are emphatics, hedge words, and superfluous modifiers

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
The car was repaired by me.

Revision:
I repaired the car.

Explanation:
"Was" is a form of the empty verb "to be." By changing the sentence from passive to active voice, we can eliminate the "to be" verb and use the active form of "repair."

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
The investigation is about why the store eliminated cherries.

Revision:
The investigation focuses on why the store eliminated cherries.

Explanation:
We can replace "is" (a form of the empty verb "to be") with the more specific verb "focuses."

Sometimes, empty verbs precede nominalizations (nouns with verb forms). In these cases, you can replace the empty verb with the verb form of the nominalization.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
The committee members gave their suggestions about ways to lower consumer costs.

Revision:
The committee suggested ways to lower consumer costs.

Explanation:
In this example, "gave" is an empty verb. In the revision, we replace "gave" with the more powerful verb form of the nominalization "suggestions."

Occasionally, an empty verb can be a colloquialism. For example: "I'm going to take two courses this semester." When an empty verb is a colloquialism, you might find it difficult, if not impossible, to rephrase your sentence. It might be more effective to leave the colloquial verb in the sentence.

EXAMPLE 4:

Original:
I'm going to take a shower.

Revision:
I'm going to shower.

Explanation:
In this example, "take" is an empty verb. "Shower" is a noun (a nominalization) in the first sentence, but becomes the verb in the second.


USING EMPHATICS

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

Use emphatics sparingly or not at all.

The Long Version

Emphatics are words writers use to strengthen their arguments. Because they reiterate what the sentence already says, they can make writers sound uncertain or defensive. Emphatics are empty words (words which add little meaning to a sentence). Other empty words include hedge words, superfluous modifiers, and empty verbs. We recommend that you use emphatics sparingly. In most cases, sentences do not require emphatics.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
I definitely think this is the answer.

Revision:
I think this is the answer.

Explanation:
"Definitely" is an emphatic that highlights our insecurity about the answer.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
My plan is clearly the best.

Revision:
My plan is the best.

Explanation:
The emphatic weakens the point: if our plan is the best, then "clearly" is unnecessary.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
Ben’s testimony is undoubtedly true.

Revision:
Ben’s testimony is true.

Compact Phrases

Some phrases are compact, others long and unwieldy. Often, we can shorten long phrases not by removing information, but by condensing it, by reworking the phrase into something tighter and more compact.


USING FREE MODIFIERS

The Short Version

Make verb-heavy sentences more concise by using free modifiers.

The Long Version

Modifiers are words or phrases that describe a noun, a verb, or another part of a sentence. They can add detail and color to your prose. That said, they aren't essential. If you remove them, the sentence will still be grammatical, although not necessarily logical. Free modifiers are phrases that describe (modify) the subject of the sentence.

Free modifiers are versatile. You can put them anywhere in a sentence: at the beginning, at the end, or in between clauses. No matter where they are placed, free modifiers always refer to the subject of the sentence.

The main verb and the time frame described can help you determine the most effective free modifier to use. Common free modifiers are past participles ("-ed" verbs), present participles ("-ing" verbs), and adjectives.

Free modifiers provide an opportunity to pack several verbs phrases into a single sentence. If a sentence rambles on, you might try converting some of the verb phrases into free modifiers.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
The vegetables were picked this morning and are still fresh.

Revision:
The vegetables picked this morning are still fresh.

Explanation:
The revision is more cohesive because of the free modifier. We eliminated the string of verb phrases by embedding a free modifier, "picked this morning," in an independent clause. We could also revise by placing the free modifier at the beginning: "Picked this morning, the vegetables are still fresh." The free modifier "picked" is a past participle.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
The author identifies with the revolting crowd, shows us its thoughts, voices its shouts, and enables us to hear what it hears.

Revision:
The author identifies with the revolting crowd, showing us its thoughts, voicing its shouts, and enabling us to hear what it hears.

Explanation:
In the revision, the free modifiers condense a long list of apparently unconnected actions into a sentence with one main action and categories of that action. The free modifiers "showing," "voicing," and "letting" are all present ("-ing") participles.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
I tried, and I was certain I would fail.

Revision:
I tried, though certain I would fail.

Explanation:
The first sentence has two independent clauses, while the second has only one ("I tried"). The free modifier ("though certain I would fail") draws attention to the contradiction of trying when you know you will fail. The free modifier "certain" is an adjective.


RETHINKING POMPOUS LANGUAGE

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

Avoid overly formal words and phrases. Write as simply as possible.

The Long Version

Pompous language results in unnecessarily complex prose, slows the pace of a sentence, and can confuse readers.

You might find yourself using pompous language when you are insecure about the style of your writing. We tend to associate pompous language with formal or bureaucratic prose.

Empty verbs, nominalizations, and passive verbs are common in pompous language.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
Pursuant to the course of action dictated yesterday by our esteemed professor, we have deemed it advisable to complete the tasks allotted to us.

Revision:
The professor told us to finish our homework, so that's what we are going to do.

Explanation:
The first sentence uses many overly formal words to say badly what can be said well with fewer, less pompous words.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
In accordance with the recommendations offered by various persons knowledgeable in the field, I made the decision to adhere to a diet of foods known to be healthy.

Revision:
I decided to eat healthy food.

Explanation:
The first version uses a lot of words, but says very little in actual substance. The revision uses fewer words to convey what is, essentially, the same information.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
Seattle’s meteorological phenomena necessitate that I devise an effective course of action to prevent the physical discomfort accordant with being saturated by water.

Revision:
Seattle’s weather requires that I take an umbrella to avoid getting wet.

Explanation:
The original sentence is loaded with unnecessary words and, as a result, the sentence is slow and cluttered. The revised sentence uses fewer words and simpler language to convey the same meaning in a concise, straightforward manner.

Concision Checklist

  • Identify and remove redundant words
  • Consider each adverb you use and whether it adds or detracts from the meaning of a sentence
  • Combine negative adjectives ("not") with the words they modify to prevent clutter
  • Remove unnecessary adjectives separating subjects from infinitive verbs
  • Identify and remove modifiers that don't contribute to the meaning of your sentences
  • Delete hedge words and phrases that convey uncertainty or hesitation
  • Replace empty verbs such as "to be" with more specific verbs
  • Remove emphatic words such as "definitely" that detract from arguments
  • Simplify your sentences by using free modifiers
  • Avoid unnecessarily complex (pompous) language, which may confuse your readers