Brevity, Clutter, Concision

Brevity, Clutter, Concision are synonyms used to contrast wordy writing with concise writing.

Note: concise writing should be distinguished from equivalent with simplistic prose or a Writer-Based Prose Style. What distinguishes the presence of these stylistic attributes is not necessarily the length of a sentence. In fact, extremely long sentences–sentences with many words–maybe considered concise.

In a world where everyone is busy, busy, busy, conciseness is paramount to successful communication. Conciseness is a highly prized stylistic attribute of nonfiction prose in the 21st century.

When we first begin drafting, our focus is rightly on our ideas and experiences. Early in a writing task, during preliminary composing, we are wise to set aside stylistic concerns.

Yet before we submit a document, we are wise to ruthlessly evaluate our prose. Here we need to step away from our egos. Yes, we may have spent hours, maybe even weeks, writing a document. But now, before we hand it over to our readers, once we’re confident we’ve written something worth sharing, we need to consider whether we can make our words more engaging, more vigorous. We need to ask how we can stri away the clutter and find the essence, the gist, the core message.

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.  Take this sentence, for example: 

  • “Michelle was supposed to have her car’s oil changed every 3,000 miles, and since it had been 3,000 miles since her last oil change, she took her car to the mechanic.”

This sentence is okay and makes sense, though the statement could be more precise if the author phrased it a little differently.  Describing the action first, followed by the reason, would improve it: 

  • “Michelle had the mechanic change her car’s oil because it had been 3,000 miles since the last one.”

This sentence conveys the same message and is more succinct and direct.  True, the sentence omits that Michelle “was supposed to have her car’s oil changed every 3,000 miles,” but we should know this already (or can presume so) from the word “because.”  The first sentence is acceptable, but some of the words are superfluous, which can disrupt the flow of your research paper. Just as a machine should not have extra parts, a sentence shouldn’t have any extra words. 

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

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.

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
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.

According to William Strunk and E.B. White, writers should also strive to put statements in the positive form (19).  Readers prefer to be told what is, as opposed to what is not. For example, saying “He was late” is usually better than saying “He was not on time.  Or, “She forgot” is usually more effective than saying that she “did not remember.” Though these alterations are subtle, they make your writing bolder and more concrete.  The authors state, “Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion” (19). 

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:

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 Redundant Phrases

Writing concisely also involves avoiding redundancies.  Redundancy is when you use more words than necessary to express something, especially words and/or phrases in the same sentence that mean the same thing.  Many writers are guilty of violating this rule at times, especially in their daily conversations. However, as you proofread your papers, try to double-check them for unnecessary phrases that you can omit or edit.

Here are some common examples of redundant phrases: 

  • “small in size” or “large in size”
  • “true facts”
  • “basic fundamentals”
  • “past history”
  • “smiled happily”
  • “evolve over time”
  • “consensus of opinion”

Think about it: if something is small, it’s small—you don’t need to tack on “in size” for clarification.  If an event took place in history, then you wouldn’t need to specify that it took place in “past” history” (as opposed to what, “present” or “future” history?).  If something is a “fact,” by definition it’s true (unless the writer is using it for sarcasm or irony). If a person smiled, it can be assumed, in most cases, that the individual was happy; there’s no need to preface the verb with the adverb “happily.”  This could depend on context—for example someone could “smile nervously” if they were shy—but in most cases the extra word is unnecessary. 

  • 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.

Use Adverbs Judicously

Adverbs are often the source of egregious redundancies, and writers should be careful not to overuse them.  Stephen King, one of the most successful novelists out there, is certainly not a fan of them: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops” (118).  If you notice that your writing includes an inordinate amount of “–ly” adverbs, then you might need to examine your documents more closely. Here are some other examples of unnecessary “-ly” adverbs: 

  • “shouted loudly”
  • “raced hurriedly”
  • “whispered softly”
  • “deliberated thoughtfully”
  • “finished completely”
  • “jumped quickly”

Of course, adverbs are not always a bad thing and can in fact be useful when you want to emphasize something to carefully convey meaning.  For instance, “Steve drove crazily down the highway, putting every other driver at risk.” In this case, drove, by itself, doesn’t imply anything other than the act of driving.  But crazily describes the way in which Steve was driving, so the adverb here is informative and makes sense if the reader knows that other drivers were at risk. By contrast, when someone shouts, it’s already implied that he or she is doing so loudly, so there’s no reason for this description because it doesn’t add any extra information.  Likewise, you wouldn’t need to inform your reader that someone raced hurriedly (does anyone race slowly?) or whispered softly (does anyone whisper loudly?).    

Sometimes writers have a habit of overusing adverbs, even if they do make sense.  For instance, “Steve drove crazily, chaotically, and wildly down the highway, putting every other driver at risk.”  In this case, only one of the adverbs is necessary since they all have the same essential meaning. Because the reader gets the point with just one adverb, the additional ones (i.e., chaotically, wildly) are redundant. 

Also, you can improve how well you get the message across by eliminating the adverb and choosing a better verb in the first place.  For example, “The geologist looked closely at the volcanic rocks that she had found.” This sentence is fine, but here is a different way to say it: “The geologist examined the volcanic rocks that she had found.” Because the geologist examined the rocks, we can assume that she looked at them closely. This is just a subtle change, but it reads a little better. Here’s a rule to keep in mind: weak verbs usually depend on adverbs.

Redundant words and phrases make your sentences sound repetitive, so do your best to avoid using them. A good exercise to try is to go through the first draft of your next paper and circle every adverb that you spot. Then, look at each of them and determine which ones are needed and which ones you can throw out. Usually, the more adverbs you can eliminate, the stronger your paper will be. You want your arguments to be cogent, of course, but you don’t need to go too far with flowery writing. As Strunk and White say, try to keep it simple and don’t fall into the trap of overwriting: “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating” (72). You can become a better writer by avoiding redundancies and learning to construct your sentences more concisely.

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?

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.