Many Americans (including me!) have bad eating habits. Too much junk food. Too much food, period! We’re overstuffed. We suffer health problems and image problems. We must cut the fat.
When our writing becomes overstuffed, our readers suffer through pages of boring narrative. And we suffer, too — our success is endangered. We must cut the fat!
Obese writing is nothing new. In The King’s English, published nearly a century ago, author H.W. Fowler begins the first chapter with these words:
Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.
Fowler continues by suggesting the following rules:
Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
Prefer the short word to the long.
Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.
The first edition of The Elements of Style contains the following paragraph:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
And the American Heritage Book of English Usage sums it up well:
Most of us are busy and impatient people. We hate to wait. Using too many words is like asking people to stand in line until you get around to the point. It is irritating, which hardly helps when you are trying to win someone’s goodwill or show that you know what you’re talking about. What is worse, using too many words often makes it difficult to understand what is being said. It forces a reader to work hard to figure out what is going on, and in many cases the reader may simply decide it is not worth the effort. Another side effect of verbosity is the tendency to sound overblown, pompous, and evasive. What better way to turn off a reader?
A Google search on “wordiness” produces a vast list of articles:
- A to Z of alternative words (PDF)—Plain English Campaign, a privately owned business based in the United Kingdom
- Buried Under Words—Greg Nesty, School of Business and Economics, Humboldt State University, Arcata, California
- Conciseness: Methods of Eliminating Wordiness—Online Writing Lab, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana
- Concision from The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing—Michael Harvey, professor, Department of Business Management, Washington College, Chestertown, Maryland
- Curing Wordiness—Transaction Net, San Francisco, California
- Eliminating Wordiness—Undergraduate Writing Center, University of Texas at Austin
- How to Make Sentences Clear and Concise—Writer’s Web, University of Richmond, Virginia
- How to Write Clear, Concise, and Direct Sentences—Grammar Handbook, Writing Center, University of Wisconsin at Madison
- Plague Words and Phrases—Charles Darling, professor of English/humanities, Capital Community-Technical College, Hartford, Connecticut
- Reducing Wordiness: Occam’s Razor Still Applies—John T. Harwood, director, Education Technology Services, Pennsylvania State University
- Removing Word Clutter—Jennifer Jordan-Henley, Online Writing Lab, Roane State Community College, Oak Ridge, Tennessee
- Strategies for Reducing Wordiness—Judith Kilborn, The Write Place, St. Cloud State University, Minnesota
- Tips for Reducing Wordiness—Language and Academic Skills Unit, La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia
- Wordiness: Danger Signals and Ways to React—Margaret Procter, Ph.D., coordinator, Writing Support, University of Toronto, Canada
- Writing Concise Sentences—Charles Darling, professor of English/humanities, Capital Community-Technical College, Hartford, Connecticut
Do you have any resources on concise writing to add to this list? Please share your favorites in the comments section.
Until next time,