The Art Of Concision (And Why Just Telling People To ‘Use Fewer Words’ Is Bad Advice)

Ask the person next to you what about their own writing they’d like to improve. Chances are they’ll tell you they want to be concise, they want to be more to the point, they want to be more like Hemingway. Right.

We all want to write using fewer words — and modern technologies such as Twitter are forcing us to get better at saying more with less. Common advice for being concise includes:

-Use fewer words
-Strike unnecessary or redundant words

That took eight words, yet I don’t think you nor anyone is better at saying more with less just because you read those nine words. Even if you memorized them, repeated them every time you sat down to write, you still won’t write shorter.

What’s Behind The Drive To Write Concisely?

This question deserves answering because writing short for the sake of using fewer words isn’t the point. Just look at the Declaration of Independence. The opening line could easily be shortened, but would it have the same meaning, effect, and clarity?

ORIGINAL: When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
REWRITE: There comes a time when people have to split to reinforce their belief in equal rights. And out of respect for mankind, they should list the causes of separation.

The original is 71 words long. The rewritten version is 29 words long. Judged by length, the second is better. But any American, or any citizen the world over, knows that the original can’t be enhanced by cutting a few words.

Clarity Is The Goal

The simple conclusion is to only shorten what you’re writing for the sake of clarity. Writing is difficult, which is why those who master it generally make a lot of money and find success.

It takes time to write concisely. You may have heard the famous quote “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter,” which has been attributed to multiple people.

The first time you write something it won’t be short and pithy. It will be too long, confusing, and sometimes undecipherable to readers. That’s okay. Writing is a process by which we can sharpen our arguments, organize our thoughts, and deepen our understanding.

Don’t strive for using fewer words; strive for clarity. Think of Hemingway and William Faulkner. Hemingway’s writing was terse while Faulkner was famous for long, run-on sentences. (He once held a record for the longest sentence at about 1400-words.) High school students might prefer Hemingway to Faulkner, but both were clear in their own way.

Below are some tips for writing short. What you’ll notice is that sometimes deploying these steps might increase the number of words you use. Don’t fret. Clarity is the goal.

Split Your Sentences*

Long sentences can be confusing and include unnecessary words. Here is an example from a national publication.

“The questioning of Obama’s use of a Census Bureau statistic that the median wages of working women in America are 77 percent of median wages earned by men lasted almost a week.”

Do you know what the author was trying to say? I didn’t the first time I read it. So I split it into several sentences to parse out the meaning. Here’s my rewrite:

“Questions about Obama’s numbers on gender pay lasted a week. Mr. Obama relied on information from the Census Bureau, which showed that median wages of working women in America are 77 percent of those for men.”

The result: My version is 37 words versus the original’s 32 words. Don’t protest. While I didn’t cut down the number of words overall, I injected clarity into something that was confusing. And rather than having one long confusing sentence, we now have two shorter, more understandable sentences.

  • *This advice comes courtesy of Wall-Street-Journal-turned-University-of-Maryland professor Rob Wells (@rwells1961).

Look At “Of” And Let Verbs Be Verbs

“Of” is a necessary word. It’s used frequently, and grammarians sometimes refer to it as a “function” word because it points to something other than itself. We rarely focus on the word “of” but on everything else around it.

But we should pay attention to it, because it’s often a signal of a problem. Did you catch that use of “of?” It’s unnecessary.

But we should pay attention to it, because oftentimes it’s a signal of a problem. (15 words long).

If instead we used signal as a verb, we wouldn’t need “of” and the sentence would be shorter.

But we should pay attention to it, because oftentimes it signals a problem. (13 words).

We saved two words. That’s not a lot, but over the course an 800-word op-ed or article, it matters.

“Of” can also signal that someone is using a verb as a noun.

Here’s an example that will help:

The Department of Justice is doing an investigation of Sen. Joe Blow for smuggling his tobacco-flavored gum from Cuba into the United States. (24 words)

We could shorten this by calling the “Department of Justice,” the Justice Department, which is an acceptable name for the agency. We could also use “investigation” as a verb.

The Justice Department is investigating Sen. Joe Blow for smuggling his tobacco-flavored gum from Cuba into the United States. (20 words)

Here’s another example:

The introduction of legislation by Congressman John to legalize marijuana sparked an uproar among older lawmakers Friday. (17 words)

Again we can shorten this if we look at “of” and use “introduction” as a verb instead of as a noun.

Congressman John sparked an uproar among older lawmakers Friday when he introduced legislation to legalize marijuana. (16 words)

There are a lot of ways to write more concisely. Striking redundant words (such as saying “to” instead of “in order to”) is another way.

Writing with fewer words is difficult. It takes time. But splitting your sentences and paying attention to “of” and whether you’re using verbs properly should help.

Below is a theoretical (and ridiculous) chart showing how you can free up more space to write what you want to say. Let’s assume that the typical, poorly written op-ed has 750 words and 38 sentences. Let’s assume that for the sake of clarity we cut two words per sentence, than instead of having a 750-word oped we can have a 674-word oped.

We can use that extra space to say something more. Try these writing tips and remember: Only deploy them if you’re trying to be more clear. Don’t try them just for the sake of using fewer words.

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