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ATD Blog

The Subtle Art of Concise Writing for Better Readability

Wednesday, July 20, 2022
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“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” —Mark Twain

As a writer, I’ve always struggled to say what I wanted to in the “best” possible way—one that makes me sound intellectual and sophisticated. Like many others, I’ve succumbed to the childhood conditioning that required me to express myself using big words and long phrases. I felt (and often still feel) that unless I used complex vocabulary and convoluted sentences, I wouldn’t be taken seriously. Over time, I have seen the benefits of concise writing. Practicing concise writing has taught me that uncluttered, easy-to-read prose is magical; it is great for the writer, and a pleasure for the reader.

The “WHAT” of Concise Writing

Concise writing is about using the most effective words. It’s about conveying your idea without making the reader sift through extra verbiage to find the key points of a message. It’s also about using the words that best elicit the reader’s interest and emotional engagement. The purpose is to convey your meaning in the simplest way possible, without relying on words that do not add value. For example:

Original: “If there are any points on which you require explanation or further details, we shall be glad to furnish such additional details as may be required by telephone.”

Revised: “If you have questions or need further information, we’ll be happy to get on a call.”

Which sentence is easier to read and understand? Is anything lost in the revised version? The original sentence conveyed the same message as the revised one but with many disposable words. You may have had to read the original more than once to make sense of it. The revised sentence, however, clearly tells the reader what they need to know. This is the benefit of concise writing.

Now that we have seen an example of the value of concise writing, let’s look at how to make our writing more concise.

The “HOW” of Concise Writing

It’s important to know what concise writing is, but how do you convert your writing to its simplest form? Here are some pointers.

1. Use active voice instead of passive voice. Active voice is more precise and direct than passive voice. It focuses on the subject performing an action. Passive voice adds ambiguity to writing because it focuses on the subject receiving an action performed by an object. (Sometimes passive voice works better—for instance, when you want to emphasize an action more than whoever is doing the action or when you don’t know who is doing the action.)

When you’re writing, read through it, identify instances of passive voice, and rewrite those instances in active voice. If the rewrites are more direct and don’t change the meaning of what you’re trying to convey, stick with them. For maximum effect, use a blend of active and passive voice to make your writing less monotonous and predictable and to keep the reader engaged.

Here are some examples of passive and active voice:

Passive Voice

Active Voice

The wall is being built by the mason.
The mason built the wall.
The work must be finished by me today.
I must finish the work today.
Why was such a letter written by you?
Why did you write such a letter?
My purse has been stolen by someone.
Someone stole my purse.

2. Use powerful adjectives instead of weak ones. Adjectives are words that add context to nouns. In any piece of writing, adjectives can add perspective to what you’re saying and give character to the nouns you use. To make writing more powerful without adding words, replace less impactful adjectives with stronger ones. For example:

  • Dirty –> Filthy
  • Tired –> Exhausted
  • Scared –> Terrified
  • Happy –> Thrilled
  • Sad –> Devastated

Let’s look at these sentences:

Original: She was tired after the long meeting and could not wait to get home.

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Revised: She was exhausted after the long meeting and could not wait to get home.

Think about which sentence reads better and makes you connect with what the writer is saying.

3. Avoid redundancy. Redundancy is the use of unnecessary or repetitive words to convey meaning—words that don’t add value. Here are some examples of redundant phrases:

  • Advance warning—Warnings are always predictive and given in advance to something happening, so the word advance is not required.
  • New innovation—Innovation means something new, so using new is not required.
  • 6 a.m. in the morning—a.m. means the morning, so the word morning is not required.
  • Completely finished—Finished means completed, so the word completely is not required.
  • Collaborate together—Collaborate means working together, so the word together is not required.

Here are some other redundant phrases to avoid using. (Note: these are commonly used and not incorrect when used; however, for the sake of simplicity, do without them.)

completely unanimous

sufficient enough

merge together

tiny speck

continue to remain

exact same

dreadful disaster

postpone till later

may possibly

forward planning

mutual agreement

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personal friend

often in the habit of

end result

so therefore

true fact

4. Omit unnecessary qualifiers. We very frequently try to qualify our writing by using somewhat strengthening words such as: actually, really, basically, probably, very, somewhat, kind of, extremely, practically. When talking, these words work, but in writing, they’re not needed.

In the first sentence of this section, we could easily remove “very,” “try to,” and “somewhat” to make a crisper sentence: “We frequently qualify our writing by using strengthening words such as …”

Here is another example: “Because so many of the words in this sentence are kind of unnecessary, it would really be a very good idea to edit somewhat for conciseness.”

Revision:Because many of the words in this sentence are unnecessary, we should edit it.”

Pay attention to the words you use and omit those that are unnecessary. This is the quickest and easiest way to practice concise writing.

5. Identify and reduce prepositional phrases. Using many prepositional phrases (which begin with words like “in,” “for,” “at,” “on,” “through,” and “over”) can make a sentence clunky and unclear. To locate this problem, highlight the prepositions in your draft and see whether you can remove any prepositional phrases without losing your meaning. Sometimes, the easiest way to revise a wordy sentence is to ask yourself “What do I really mean here?” and then write a new sentence; this approach can be more efficient than trifling with your existing sentence. Let’s look at this example:

Original: The reason for the major loss of the basketball team of the University of North Carolina in the Final Four game against the team from North Carolina was that on that day and at that time, many players were most often unable to rebound the ball.

Revised: UNC’s basketball team lost the Final Four game against North Carolina because the players could not reliably rebound the ball.

6. Replace a phrase with a word. It is useful to replace frequently used phrases with single words that convey the same meaning. This makes reading easier. For example, both “the reason for” and “given the fact that” can be replaced with the word “because.” “In the event that” and “under circumstances in which” can be replaced with “if.” “It is necessary that” and “cannot be avoided” can be replaced with “must” or “should.” For example:

Original: In the event that going out for a team lunch cannot be avoided, it is probably a good idea that we first go to the ATM, given the fact that I am out of cash.

Revised: If we must go for the team lunch, we should first go to the ATM because I am out of cash.

Concise writing is its own kind of magic. It makes the reader’s experience less taxing and more rewarding and allows you to convey your information more efficiently and effectively. Strip every sentence to its most basic form. Remove words that don’t add value. Replace long phrases with single words where possible. Eliminate passive construction. Choose the best adjectives. And watch your writing shine!

About the Author

Aruna Vira works with ansrsource, a learning design company. She started as a content author and now manages a practice of 20 authors creating learning experiences for universities. Aruna holds a master’s degree in psychology and has previous experience as a business development associate and trainer for an HR consulting company, content writer for a variety of industries, counselor, and teacher.

3 Comments
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Just what I was looking for. Thank you!
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Concise writing is my favorite goal to strive toward! Struck and White's The Elements of Style is an excellent, quick read on this topic.
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Love this article! Thank you.
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