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Six Tips for Writing Concisely

by Marilynne Rudick and Leslie O'Flahavan

For one of our first writing projects, we were paid by the word. Needless to say, we took ten words to say what we could in five. By-the-word payment was an obvious disincentive to conciseness.

Over the years, both we and our clients have come to prize concise writing. Online writing demands conciseness. Busy people won’t read long e-mails or text-heavy web pages. And IM and text messaging have raised conciseness to an art form. Long, wordy text is as obsolete as the typewriter.

But what exactly does it mean to be concise?

Many people think that concise means short. But short itself doesn't guarantee conciseness. Concise writing is also precise, straightforward, and relevant. The American Heritage Dictionary's definition of conciseness --"Expressing much in few words"-- is itself an illustration of conciseness.

Writing concisely doesn't mean providing a summary or truncating your message. The key to conciseness is honing the essentials and editing out the non-essential.

But how do you do that?

1. Stay on message

One of the obstacles to conciseness is losing focus. It’s easy to veer off course and take a side road that includes interesting but unessential information: background, history or a related idea. Here’s an example of an FAQ that took a side road:

Where does your natural gas come from?

Most of the natural gas used in the United States comes from domestic gas production. The remainder comes from imports, primarily from Canada. Domestic gas production and imported gas are usually more than enough to satisfy customer needs during the summer, allowing a portion of supplies to be placed into storage facilities for withdrawal in the winter, when the additional requirements for space heating cause total demand to exceed production and import capabilities.

Our concise edit answered the question succinctly and deleted the interesting but off-topic information about seasonal demand:

Most of the natural gas used in the United States comes from domestic gas production. The remainder comes from imports, primarily from Canada.

2. Say it clearly - once

If you’ve struggled to explain a difficult concept you may find yourself using words such as “In other words,” “In short,” “To restate this.” These phrases creep in when you haven’t done a good job of saying something clearly. So rather than try to clarify your original attempt, you take a second stab. If you see these phrases in your writing, take a second look and see whether both explanations are needed. Here’s an example:

Researchers found that national rates of breast cancer inversely correlate to solar radiation exposure. In other words, breast cancer occurs at a much higher rate in colder, cloudier northern regions than in sunnier southern regions.

The second explanation (In other words. . . ) says in plain language what the first explanation said more technically. A concise revision:

Researchers found national rates of cancer occur at much higher rates in colder, cloudier northern regions than in sunnier southern regions.

3. Use plain language

Many people think that writing like a bureaucrat gives their writing power. That’s not true. Powerful writing uses plain and straightforward language. Bureaucratic language tends to inflate your word count and confuse your reader. Here’s an example of inflated and officious writing:

Local Veterans Employment Representatives conduct outreach to employers to engage in advocacy efforts with hiring executives to increase employment opportunities for veterans.

Using plain language, we reduced this 22-word mouthful to 14 words:

Local Veterans Employment Representatives reach out to employers to encourage them to hire veterans.

4. Say it simply

Sometimes your writing has so many trees that you lose the path through the forest. In this overly specific, tree-filled sentence, the main message gets lost:

To inquire concerning the status of your compensation, DIC, pension, burial, accrued, clothing allowance, automobile, specially adapted housing, or spina bifida claim or to ask any general Compensation & Pension (C&P) benefit question, you may call our toll-free number.

By taking out some trees, our clear and simple message emerges:

Call our toll-free number if you have any questions about Compensation & Pension benefits.

5. Show, don't say

A picture, figure, diagram is often worth 1000 words (or 10 or 50). Here’s a description of a bride’s gown from a wedding announcement. "The bride wore an empire waist, ivory-beaded chantilly lace over rum-pink silk-duchess satin-soft fluted gown.” Wouldn’t you rather have a photo?

6. Write in the active voice

Structuring your sentence to emphasize the “doer” of the action, rather than the object, helps you write short sentences. This active voice sentence is six words: Jane delivered the gift to William. Writing in the passive voice uses eight words: The gift was delivered to William by Jane.

Writing concisely is difficult and takes more time, since it often means taking your first draft and chopping away with an eye to conciseness. Witness Mark Twain’s reply to a publisher who sent this telegram:


Mark Twain’s pithy and concise reply:


Mark Twain would have hated text messaging!

© E-WRITE, 2007.

Marilynne Rudick and Leslie O'Flahavan are partners in E-WRITE , a training and consulting company that specializes in writing for online readers. Rudick and O'Flahavan are authors of Clear, Correct, Concise E-Mail: A Writing Workbook for Customer Service Agents.

Some Related Articles:

Test Your Grammar Smarts
Turning Panic into Profit
Words We'd Love to Do Without
Ten Tips for Getting Your Business Letters Read
Five Top Techniques That Improve Your Writing
To Whom It May Concern
Principles of Good Writing


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