Especially when writing about complex ideas, writers can struggle to create clear, straightforward, and uncomplicated sentences. Writing succinctly is advantageous for both the writer and the reader: the writer’s message is communicated clearly, and the reader can understand the concept without having to deconstruct the language used to express the idea.
A lot of the principles of writing concisely overlap with plain language principles, such as keeping sentences short (the ideal sentence length is 18–22 words), adopting a reader focus (i.e., thinking about who your audience is, the context of the text), and using active voice (e.g., the dog bought some ice cream instead of the ice cream was bought by the dog).
Identify and fix run-on sentences
Run-on sentences consist of two or more independent clauses that aren’t joined together correctly. Independent clauses are groups of words that can stand alone as a sentence. Sometimes, I put my finger over some text on the screen, covering some of the words, to imagine if part of a sentence can stand alone as a sentence; this is my test for independent clauses.
Independent clauses must be joined
with a comma and a coordinating conjunction (read more about commas and coordinating conjunctions here), or
with a semicolon, colon, or dash.
This means that independent clauses cannot be joined by a comma alone, although this is common in casual messages via WhatsApp or in internet speak.
I love you, have a good day. -> I love you; have a good day!
It seems silly to be so formal as to use a semicolon for such a casual message, but this demonstrates clearly how sentences like these should be formulated in more formal writing.
Delete unnecessary words
The solution for wordiness is often to delete some of the text. While I’m editing, I’ll imagine how a sentence would read with a certain section deleted (again, using a finger to cover some words on the screen works well).
At twenty-nine years of age, she came to a compromise with the witch. -> At twenty-nine years of age, she came to a compromised with the witch.
Deleting “years of age” and “came to a” doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence, so this is a good, concise solution. When deleting portions of text, it’s important to ensure that the meaning of the text isn’t changed.
The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov said that if a gun is introduced in a story, it must be shot at some point. This is how I like to think about words: if a word is introduced in a sentence, it must play a role in the sentence.
It’s important to remember that the way we speak differs from the way we (should) write. We use a lot of filler words while speaking, or we use words for emphasis that aren’t needed on the written page (e.g., literally, very, really).
Avoid redundant words and phrases
Dozens of phrases or words feel comfortable when speaking English, but may be redundant in writing. For example, “each and every one” can easily be replaced by “each.”
Exchange circumlocutions, clichés, and idioms for single words
To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing includes dozens of concise solutions for wordy issues such as these.
an overwhelming majority of -> most
scare to death -> frighten
high and mighty -> arrogant
Verbs make for shorter sentences
A verb can often replace a wordy phrase and can make the sentence active and easier to read. Verbs are the only part of speech that can constitute an entire sentence; for example, “Run!”
cut in half -> halve
Who needs prepositions?
Prepositions are short words that describe the relation of two things. Over, on, in, for, and with are all prepositions, for example.
Prepositional phrases can often be replaced by single-word prepositions, or they can be deleted altogether.
With respect to recent events, the news channel decided to cancel its football coverage. -> Because of recent events, the news channel decided to cancel its football coverage.
For the purpose of writing more concisely, you’re reading this blog post. -> To write more concisely, you’re reading this blog post.
Let verbs be verbs
Gerunds are verbs acting as nouns; they usually end in ing.
He did the sewing in the morning, so he could relax in the evening. -> He sewed in the morning, so he could relax in the evening.
Nominalizations, which are verbs that have been turned into nouns, are common in academic writing. These can usually be turned into verbs for shorter, more easily readable sentences.
The committee fought for the inclusion of contemporary novels in the curriculum. -> The committee fought to include contemporary novels in the curriculum.
Remove empty words
Dozens of words some color to our spoken language but don’t add anything to the written word.
Supposedly, Mark Twain said that a writer could add “damn” in the place of each “very” in a book, and the editor would delete every instance either way. Who knows if that quote is correctly attributed, but it’s a good way to remember the needless use of these empty words in writing.
Metadiscourse is writing that talks about the author’s writing or thinking (e.g., I will explain), the reader’s actions (e.g., you will recall), and the writer’s certainty about an issue (e.g., it seems that).
It is absolutely certain that women in early modern history had sartorial options that we could say were extremely complicated. -> Women in early modern history had complicated sartorial options.
As a side benefit, reducing or removing metadiscourse can also make an author’s writing and message stronger and clearer. Distilling opinions by introducing them with “I think that” or “it seems to be,” for example, makes authors appear less certain of the arguments they’re making, which makes it more likely for readers to be skeptical of these arguments, too.
Avoid cleft sentences
A cleft sentence creates a redundancy that may not be necessary. Cleft sentences follow a pattern: It is X that/who/which Y. Although cleft sentences have their place, they should be avoided they’re not necessary for the meaning of the sentence.
It is you who I love. -> I love you.
These have different meanings: the former emphasizes that “you”—as opposed to anyone else—is loved. The latter is more direct.
It was the roadrunner that got run over by a car and who fell off a cliff. -> The roadrunner got run over by a car and fell off a cliff.
Cleft sentences can be used to provide some variety to the sentence structures in a text, but they can also introduce unnecessary redundancy.
Some quick tips
Keep sentences short (18–22 words is a good rule of thumb)
Verbs followed by preposition can sometimes be used without the preposition (e.g., note down -> note; call up -> call)
In order to -> to
Due to -> because
Whether or not -> whether
Avoid qualifying terms in metadiscourse (e.g., I attempt to; it seems as though)
Focus on the verbs in a sentence and make them prominent