Brevity is

Rhetors achieve brevity by eliminating unnecessary abstractions, jargon, clichés, awkward sentence constructions, weak verbs, tangled sentence patterns, unnecessary nouns, and overuse of prepositional phrases.

The term brevity is synonymous with succinctness, terseness, and conciseness.


Brevity is one of the most important, if not the most important attributes of effective written, spoken, and visual language. Since time immemorial, people have prized communications that are concisely worded.

Less is more.

Robert Browning

Back in the day . . . in the dark ages before the internet . . . texts were expensive to produce and challenging to distribute. Writers had somewhat captive audiences, and, on occasion, they could enjoy the stage a bit too much and launch into wordy prose, unnecessary details, and anecdotal, writer-based prose.

Victorian writers had a taste for the ornate and didn’t consider brevity a virtue, and many modern writers, like Tom Wolfe, have broken out of the cage, turning a headlong exuberance of language into a source of positive energy. Such skillful acrobats, however, are rare; most nonfiction writers will do well to cling to the ropes of simplicity and clarity.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

Now, of course, this notion that people in the past were more patient is probably something of an overstatement. Even before the internet people disliked wasting their time:

“When we fully understand the brevity of life, its fleeting joys and unavoidable pains; when we accept the facts that all men and women are approaching an inevitable doom: the consciousness of it should make us more kindly and considerate of each other. This feeling should make men and women use their best efforts to help their fellow travelers on the road, to make the path brighter and easier as we journey on. It should bring a closer kinship, a better understanding, and a deeper sympathy for the wayfarers who must live a common life and die a common death”

Clarence Darrow, The Essential Words and Writings of Clarence Darrow

Still, the sensorium of everyday life may be altering our attention span, our memories, our ability to focus. At the least, it’s fairly inconververtable that our senses are bombarded with more information than ever before:

  • 1.7MB of data is created every second by every person during 2020.
  • In the last two years alone, the astonishing 90% of the world’s data has been created.
  • 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are produced by humans every day.
  • 463 exabytes of data will be generated each day by humans as of 2025.
  • 95 million photos and videos are shared every day on Instagram.
  • By the end of 2020, 44 zettabytes will make up the entire digital universe.
  • Every day, 306.4 billion emails are sent, and 5 million Tweets are made” (Techjury).

So . . . what’s the bottom line?

If you want readers who respect you, who keep with you to the end of the sentence, then you’ve got to take a hard look at your texts and attempt to make them as concise as possible.

Brevity & the Writing Process

One of the first steps toward brevity is rhetorical analysis: you need to know your audience well in order to ascertain what information is tangential or redundant, be aware of the preciousness of the reader’s time. Recognize there are million other things competing for the audience’s time. Only give the information the reader needs. Make sure nothing is ornamental, unnecessary, or repetitive.

When we first begin composing, your focus is rightly on identifying what you want to say, what evidence you need to provide, what research methods you should employ—and so on. In other words, early during composing, you are wise to set aside stylistic concerns—especially concerns about brevity.

Eventually, however, before you submit a document to an instructor, boss, or colleague—well, any audience—you are wise to ruthlessly evaluate your prose. Here we all need to step away from our egos and tendency to be somewhat defensive in response to critique. Yes, you may have spent hours, maybe even weeks, writing a text. But now, before you hand it over to your readers, once you’re confident you’ve written something worth sharing, you need to consider whether your can make our words more engaging, more vigorous, by stripping away the deadwood.

In a world where billions of instant messages and emails are sent daily, brevity is a virtue. People love conciseness. They respect writers and leaders who can explain difficult matters simply. Unfortunately, many writers use sentences that are too wordy.  This is not to suggest that lengthy sentences can never be used but most of the time writers make the mistake of using more words than necessary to get their message across. 

Strategies for Achieving Brevity

Be Specific

When we speak, we use voice inflection and hand gestures to convey our points, but we don’t have this luxury when we write. We have words, but words alone require more effort. Consider the word “dog.” For some, this word evokes, or calls to mind, your four-legged best friend; for others, the word may conjure images of that guy who never called.  If the word dog makes up part of a sentence, we may be able to tell that the writer refers to an animal that barks—but there are still 5,000 different kinds of dogs, so which type of dog is it? After all, there is a big difference between a Chihuahua and a Pit Bull. Getting specific ensures that your reader understands the message you’re trying to convey.

Be Active

“Active voice” refers to the relationship between the subject and the verb of a sentence.  In an active sentence, the subject carries out the action of the verb, i.e., “Joseph (subject) ate (verb) the burrito.” In passive sentences, however, the subject no longer acts but is acted upon by the verb: “The burrito was eaten (verb) by Joseph (subject)” or “The burrito was eaten” (if the subject is unknown).  Below are some more examples. Note that in these examples, the sentences become shorter and more specific because active writing forces the writer to be clearer and more assertive.

PassiveActive
The reason he left his job at the bank was because his health began to fail.He left his job at the bank because his health began to fail.
The balloon was blown up by me.I blew up the balloon.
The boat has been destroyed by a hurricane.A hurricane destroyed the boat.
The dragon has been killed by the heroine.The heroine killed the dragon.

Don’t Just Be. Do!

In our daily speech and in rough drafts, we tend to rely heavily on the various forms of the verb to be.

The verb to be is unlike any other verb because it is inert–that is, it doesn’t show any action. For example, in the sentence “The researcher is a professor at Duke” the verb is merely connects the subject with what grammarians call the subject complement. We could just as easily say “The professor at Duke is a researcher” without changing the meaning of the sentence.

It would be nearly impossible to draft documents without some linking verbs. Because you diminish the vigor of a document by using an excessive number of is and are constructions, you should try to limit their frequency. Finally, note that the progressive form of a linking verb—which involves using to be as an auxiliary verb with a participle–is much more acceptable. The advantage of the progressive form is that it illustrates action progressing over time, enabling us to shape concise sentences that indicate something is currently happening: “The coauthors are disagreeing about the order in which their names should be listed when the book is published.”

It is and there are constructions often lead to sluggish, passive sentences, so you should limit their frequency, as illustrated below.

Sample: While it is crucial for us to speak out on behalf of education, it is important that we do so in a manner consistent with statute and administrative rules.

Revision: We need to speak out on behalf of education while observing statute and administrative rules.

Sample: According to the certification theory, there is no intrinsic relation between creativity and IQ.

Revision: Certification theory posits no intrinsic relation between creativity and IQ.

However, some it is and there are constructions allow you to be more succinct and avoid repetition of a subject rather than placing the true subject at the beginning of the sentence, so you should not attempt to eliminate all such constructions.

The overuse of “to be” verbs can weaken the effect of your writing. Remember that because verbs indicate the action and energy of your sentences, they are very important.  Active verbs add flavor to our sentences. When we rely too much on “to be” verbs, our writing becomes wordy and boring.  Including active verbs shortens the sentences and makes them easier to understand.

Overuse of “To Be”Active Verbs
One difference between watching television and reading is that reading is an activity
that is dependent upon more participation while watching television is a more passive
activity.
Reading differs from watching television because reading requires active
participation while watching television allows the viewer to sit back and relax.
I am about to be fired.My boss will soon fire me.
If you are okay with this proposition, let me know.If you accept this proposition, let me know.
People are always saying that I am an intellectually gifted person.People often praise me for my intellectual giftedness.

Use Verbs Rather than Nominalizations

You can imbue your language with a sense of vigor by eliminating unnecessary nouns and choosing powerful verbs. When editing, consider changing Latinated nouns–that is, nouns that end with -ance, -ing, -ion, -tion, or -ment into verbs.

For example, transform introduction into introduce; commitment, commit; feeling, feel. Changing nouns into verbs can result in a more concise and vigorous passage, as illustrated below:

Sample: The assumption that creative ability has a relationship to intelligence warrants further examination.

Revision: We must examine how creative ability relates to intelligence.

Sample: This introduction is a rough conception of the assumptions about the decision-making process underlying the conception: Decisions about belief or action generally occur in the context of some problem and have some basis.

Revision: We can assume that decisions occur in response to problems.

Remember, when you are writing and trying to be creative, you should not worry about whether or not your words are verbs or nouns. Only after you have written a solid draft should you critically evaluate your use of words.

Be Positive

Readers enjoy reading what is rather that what is not. When you compose a piece of writing, be sure to make assertions by avoiding bland or hesitant language. Consider the following sentence: “She did not think that studying algebra was a valuable way to spend the morning.” Now here’s a revision in the positive: “She thought studying algebra was a waste of the morning.”  In the revised version, it is clear what she thinks about studying: it wasted the morning.  In general, avoid using the word not when another word can replace it.

Negative FormPositive Form
Not interestingBoring
Not honestDishonest
Not importantTrifling
Not paying attentionIgnoring
Not bigSmall
Not knownUnknown

Avoid Unnecessary Repetition

Sometimes writers strive for word counts rather than precision. Unfortunately, this rarely fools the reader.  While the impulse to write more seems reasonable, it often leads to repetitive, bland paragraphs. As you revise, look for words that restate sentiments. Here are some examples:

RepetitiveExplanation
Terrible tragedyTragedy implies terrible.
Large in sizeLarge indicates a size.
Actual factsActuality requires factuality.
Pink in colorPink is a color.
Completely wholeBeing whole entails completion.

Eliminate Unnecessary Prepositions.

When used in moderation, prepositions are invaluable: they work as connecting words, linking the object of the preposition to a word that appears earlier in the sentence. Like linking verbs, however, prepositions do not convey action, nor do they subordinate one thought to another. Instead, they merely link chunks of meaning that readers must gather together in order to understand the sentence.

When used excessively, as demonstrated by the following example, prepositional phrases create a choppy, list-like style:

Sample: The major objective of this study was to determine the perceived effects of the union on monetary and on non-monetary aspects of compensation over the period in which respondents to the survey had been union members.

Because this sentence occurs in the conclusion of a five-page published essay, a careful editor should probably have eliminated this sentence altogether. Let’s face it: If the readers still don’t have the point after five pages, there is little hope for them. Nevertheless, the editor and author could have improved the sentence by reducing the number of prepositions:

Sample: This study examines how the union affects monetary and non-monetary aspects of compensation.

To help identify and eliminate prepositions, isolate them by putting slashes between prepositional phrases and other basic sentence parts as illustrated here:

/Furthermore,/ /in response/ /to the increased pressure/ /to publish/ /in academia/ /the past decade/ /and the growing complexity/ /of the academic areas and research tools/, /one should expect/ /to find/ /increased emphasis/ /on cost-cutting techniques/ //by academic writers/. /An increase/ /in cost/ /can probably be observed/ /by investigating/ /the changing trends/ /in the multiple authorship/ /of articles/ /over time./

You tend to use less explicit descriptions (such as clichés, qualifiers, wordy constructions, overuse of prepositional phrases, vague constructions). How might your discussion be more precise and engaging? How might your revise this sentence to make it clearer, more active, more convincing, and more connected to other sentences or ideas?

How can unnecessary words or phrases be eliminated?

  • Revise redundant phrases, synonymous terms, and unnecessary word pairs.
    • Quickly speeding (speeding implies quickness)
    • Young teenage mothers (young and teenage are synonyms)
    • Financial cost (financial and cost both imply money)
  • Revise redundant terms in order to be more efficient.
    • Redundant: Young adults should self-assess their situation before making a big, life-changing decision.
    • Revised: Young adults should assess their situation before making a major decision.
  • Remove redundant adjectives and adverbs; use only those that contribute to the intended message.
    • Overuse of adjectives: The large, angry, noisy crowd stormed the Capital building.
    • Revised: The mob stormed the Capital building.
    • Overuse of adverbs: She carefully and quietly walked through the room.
    • Revised: She crept through the room.
  • Remove redundant modifiers; overuse clutters the writing and distracts the reader.
    • Overuse of modifiers: The business capitalists, who focus on domestic interests, only really invest in American groups.
    • Revised: The business capitalists rarely invest in international groups.
  • Eliminate to be verbs.

    The overuse of “to be” verbs can weaken the effect of your writing. Remember that because verbs indicate the action and energy of your sentences, they are very important.  Active verbs add flavor to our sentences. When we rely too much on “to be” verbs, our writing becomes wordy and boring. Including active verbs shortens the sentences and makes them easier to understand.

Overuse of “To Be”Active Verbs
One difference between watching television and reading is that reading is an activity that is dependent upon more participation while watching television is a more passive activity.Reading differs from watching television because reading requires active participation while watching television allows the viewer to sit back and relax.
I am about to be fired.My boss will soon fire me.
If you are okay with this proposition, let me know.If you accept this proposition, let me know.
People are always saying that I am an intellectually gifted person.People often praise me for my intellectual giftedness.

Resources

Works Cited

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner, 2000. New York: Pocket Books, 2002. Print.

Strunk, William, Jr. and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2000. Print.