Making Writing Sweet and Simple: A Lesson In Conciseness

If you’re a student whose taken any English course, then chances are you’ve probably learned how to bullshit. In writing courses, students are given word- and page-length requirements, but sometimes, we don’t need all of those pages or words in order to get to the point.

So what do we do? We stretch things out. We restate things in a “new” way. We plop in a few quotes we found while researching. Or if you’re crafty, like some of the creative folk I attended college with, you do sneaky things like changing the font size of all punctuation so sentences suddenly become longer, and then you pray to God that your teacher doesn’t break out a ruler. Or isn’t a type nerd.

In the “real” world—the one outside of academia—getting to the point is preferred; in fact, it’s applauded. If there’s anything people hate, it’s their time being wasted.

As an undergrad, I took a lot of technical writing courses as part of a certificate program. There’s nothing like staring at a document, one sentence at a time, with a classroom of other students, and examining every word for its meaning, its use—deciding whether or not it serves a purpose or is just filler. It may seem mundane, but technical writers get paid sixty thousand plus a year in order to make sure writing is clear. To make sure that instructions and warnings in manuals won’t get a company sued and will limit incoming calls to customer support. In other words, technical writers help companies save money. Not only in potential legal fees, but in printing costs—tighter writing takes up less space. Less ink, less paper. And these hyper-detailed, sentence level word skills (yeah, that was a mouthful) translate into many other writing fields—whether you write creatively, edit others’ pieces, or work in marketing.

Until you’ve had practice, writing a clear, concise paper, short story, or piece of copy will not come easy and will most certainly not happen in a first draft. The revision process is key. And, what, you may ask, should I be looking for?

1. Cut down on long-winded phrases.

As my professor used to comment, “Why say something with two words when one will do.” We could write, “The new editor has a tendency to miss errors.” Or, “The new editor tends to miss errors.” Why make a sentence unnecessarily clunky? The table below is a useful tool to reference when trying to deflate common phrases.


2. Eliminate redundancies.

Writing isn’t simply meant to replicate speech. While it may be fine to say “For each and every time you say ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ a fairy drops dead,” it’s clearer to say “Every time you say ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ a fairy drops dead.” Redundancies are so common we tend to put them in our writing without noticing, using phrases like “more and more,” “forever and ever,” “so on and so forth,” or “first and foremost.”

3. Get rid of qualifiers.

Sometimes we put words in our sentences that really don’t need to be there (like the word “really” in this one). Those words are called qualifiers, and some common qualifiers are “actually,” “basically,” “probably,” “very,” “definitely,” and “somewhat.” These words are meant to modify the meaning of the word they appear next to, like “He was very cute” or “She was basically lying.” They can both enhance and diminish the emphasis of other words. Qualifiers do serve a purpose. By using words like “very” or “definitely,” a writer can seem more confident, but words like “basically” or “probably” make a writer seem unsure. If you’re not careful, qualifiers can easily become a habit, and in general, using a strong verb or adjective makes them completely unnecessary.

4. Be active, not passive.

Writers switch between passive and active voice all the time, often without realizing it. Passive voice, like qualifiers, does serve a purpose, especially in scientific writing. But passive voice generally bogs down writing with extra words, and because the emphasis is placed on the object (and not the subject), passive voice can confuse readers. For example, in the sentence “The envelope, creased and sealed, was taken to the mailbox by Susan,” the reader does not discover who is performing the action until they have read through to the end. It would be much clearer—and concise—to say “Susan took the envelope, creased and sealed, to the mailbox.”

If you’re looking for other ways to tighten up your writing, the interweb is full of them. If you have some tips of your own, please share them below!

The important thing to remember here is the big “C”—communication. Everything we do as writers should be in an effort to ease the job of readers, while making sure they get the most out of the reading experience. Whether that person is reading an email, an article, or the synopsis on a book cover—make it sweet, make it simple, and make it beautiful.

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