September 9, 2014
Concise writing might not sound sexy but if you can do it, you are hot! The ability to express yourself clearly, simply and briefly is powerful.
The trick is to let go of wordiness. Let’s start with a definition for “concise” from dictionary.com:
“Expressing or covering much in a few words; brief in form but comprehensive in scope; succinct; terse.”
“For example: a concise explanation of the company’s retirement plan.”
Watching students become concise is thrilling. Their writing completely changes as they get out of their student heads. Finally, they stop writing to please the teacher or to earn an “A.”
As good students, they have spent years perfecting loooong sentences filled with big words and many commas. Repetitive phrases and regurgitating the teacher’s viewpoint are crucial to the skill set, too. They have what I call Research Paper Mentality.
Now let’s compare how a storyteller approaches the written page. Storytellers grab audiences and keep them hanging on. Storytellers are also masters of their material. They know exactly when to introduce a revealing detail, a key character or dramatic event.
Getting concise can help transform a student into a storyteller.
The good news is that you probably already have an inner storyteller. When you are talking to friends who can’t wait to hear what happened next between you and so-and-so, you are telling them a story.
I’ll bet that while you were sharing your tale, you weren’t thinking about pleasing your friend or wondering about how you sounded. You were not using words or phrases like “however,” “therefore,” “as a result of…”
Instead, you were in the moment with the story. You were NOT overthinking.
Your concise storytelling involved:
I call these wordy phrases “word hogs.” They eat up precious space. <Burp.>
Redundancies create wordy phrases. Really, a simple word or two is all we need.
Connectors create tangled, sloppy sentences. The naughty connectors are often prepositions like: of, in, at, by, on, with, upon, at, for, from, since, though, after, with.
We also have wordy prepositional phrases like “in spite of,” “in addition to,” “on account of,” “in place of.” (For a fuller list of common prepositions, click here.)
These connectors love hooking up with the word “and” to string together multiple, random thoughts. This is where you step into their party and break up the dance. Next step: Tease out distinct sentences worth saving.
Check out this mess:
The best time in our neighborhood to get a sense of what life is like around the tree-lined streets in the West Village of Lower Manhattan is at dinner time and, you can instantly see why, because of the sidewalk cafes that are decorated with festive Christmas lights in addition to flower arrangements and packed with customers.
Help! Delete filler words connecting everything together. Extract concise information, then move on. Dump non-essential information or find a more relevant spot for it.
How about this instead:
Evening crowds pack the sidewalk cafes in our tree-lined West Village neighborhood. Christmas lights and flower arrangements create a festive mood.
Beware of sentences with clauses and commas. These sentences are like unedited thoughts — more like afterthoughts, actually. Take some time to rephrase and tighten up.
Don’t: The museum, built in 1930, was a historic landmark, much beloved by the city.
Do: The beloved museum is a historic landmark that was built in 1930.
I used to feel that cliches made me sound more conversational. But in reality, clichés are a distracting, waste of space. Cliches can also be vague, leaving readers to guess what you mean.
Don’t: Finishing the project was all in a day’s work, which proved that our team was a port in the storm.
Do: Finishing the project made us feel like winners. We had proven our value to the company.
Avoid sentences structured in the negative: Doing blah-blah was no easy feat.
Even worse than a negative set-up is the double negative. These are really stressful for readers because they have to figure out what you’re NOT saying.
Sometimes, new writers think the double negative is a clever device. Sadly, they don’t realize that these types of sentences are hard to understand. Straightforward, direct sentences do a better job. They also take up less space.
Don’t: Buying the couch is not impossible.
Do: Buying the couch is possible.
Here’s a simple test for conciseness: Write in a conversational way. To keep your work concise, read what you’ve written out loud. Do it nice and slow and clear. Pretend there’s an audience.
If you stumble over a phrase or sentence, that’s a clue to wordiness. Or at the very least, you’ve got an awkward sentence on your hands.
Sometimes, students tell me that concise writing makes them feel stupid because it’s so easy to understand. But after a while, they see dynamic changes in their storytelling techniques. And, in themselves.