“Brevity is the soul of wit,” said Shakespeare’s Polonius.
Or, as Strunk and White put it, “Omit needless words” (23).
This page teaches you how to avoid verbosity (a fancy word for wordiness) and write succinctly.
Editing is like going on a diet: you have to cut out all the junk if you want to see results.
For instance, you can often delete the opening sentences of a first draft:
Since humans are primates, their beliefs and assumptions can be explained as the effect of evolution. In other words, human behaviour is not exempt from the law of natural selection. For example, we might seem civilized, but if someone crashes into our vehicle we quickly succumb to road rage. Evolutionary biology can also provide insight into our perception of beauty. Beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder. A symmetrical body, for instance, is desirable because it is an indicator of health and fitness…
If we scratch the text in red then we can start much closer to the actual topic:
Better: Evolutionary biology can provide insight into our perception of beauty. Beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder. A symmetrical body, for instance, is desirable because it is an indicator of health and fitness…
Zooming in as quickly as possible requires a certain mindset. In high-school, students are often taught that any information on a topic is relevant. Just google your subject and gather as much material as you can. If you want to be a strong writer, however, you have to be selective. Every sentence has to build on the last until the essay is somewhat of an architectural wonder.
Take the following sentence:
Children’s literature has the ability to entertain both the children for whom it has been written and the adults who may be reading it.
Most of this sentence is redundant, and a shortened version reveals that the argument is quite simplistic:
Children’s literature provides entertainment for children and adults alike.
The wonderful thing about editing for conciseness is that you discover what you really want to say. (Or sometimes what you don’t want to say.)
Avoid Overlapping Sentences:
Don’t repeat too much of the previous sentence:
The chameleon uses protective coloration to blend in with its environment. In addition to being able to change its colour, the chameleon also has an extraordinarily long tongue.
Better: The chameleon uses protective coloration to blend in with its environment. It also has an extraordinarily long tongue.
Such overlapping often masks the fact that our ideas are poorly connected. In this case, our edit reveals that there is no adequate transition between the two topics (protective coloration … a long tongue).
Avoid Too Many Doubles
Some writers have a habit of saying everything in twos:
The concept or idea that led to the talent show was the notion that even babies and infants are able to communicate and interact with others.
Better: The talent show was inspired by the fact that even babies can communicate.
Not only did we cut down on the synonyms, but we removed a few other redundant bits too. Remember: be ruthless!
Don’t Dither Around With Verbs:
While you often need a string of verbs, avoid piling it on:
Jamal has a chance to be able to win his badminton match.
Better: Jamal has a chance to win his badminton match.
One main verb is better than a handful.
Don’t write as if every sentence requires an exclamation mark. Avoid excessive use of the following intensifiers:
completely / entirely / essentially / totally
Let the idea speak for itself.
Pick The Right Word
Lazy writers pick the first word or phrase that comes to mind. They’ll write not the same instead of different, or despite the fact that instead of while or although. Try to find the best word for the job.
Spoken English is full of redundant phrases. Here are a few to watch out for when you write:
absolutely essential (saying that something is essential is enough)
advance planning (all planning is done in advance)
new invention (an invention is by definition new)
currently (context will usually indicate the time frame)
The list goes on, but the point is clear: think carefully about the literal meaning of everything you write.
While a text often resembles an overgrown garden, sometimes an editor can go too far. It’s good to cut back on verbiage (just as on foliage), but if you use a machete you end up with a rock garden.
There is something abundant and organic to your personal style. Don’t be satisfied with just being concise.
Here’s a list of some other words and phrases that often create unnecessary padding:
For the most part
Due to the fact that
The point is
Literally (as in It is literally time to go home)
As mentioned previously
William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. The Elements of Style, 4th ed. Pearson, 2000.