Improve Your Writing by Eliminating Wordiness
If you’ve ever read a style guide, you’ve probably read that the best writing is concise writing. Even academic writing, though it may include unfamiliar vocabulary, should always be clear and concise. It’s actually a myth that the best academic writing should be verbose. The word, “verbosity” comes from Latin, verbosus, meaning “wordy.” Wordy writing can be confusing writing.
Read the following example, and judge for yourself:
In spite of the fact that it is an extremely common occurrence, both in the secondary and post-secondary level, that applying verbose, extraneous, inflated language to our academic discourse, most specifically written compositions, in the quest to elevate our standing in the eyes of our peers and those who would evaluate our discourse for a grade, only serves not only to confuse and confound the very audience we hope to impress, but to also significantly frustrate the reader that our attempts often are met with disapproval, and often contempt, but more importantly, an unsatisfactory mark.
This is an example of wordy writing. Overly verbose and “puffy.” While reading a passage like the example above is obviously over-the-top, how can we edit our own writing to eliminate wordiness?
Language and Vocabulary
While it’s great to incorporate new terminology as our vocabulary grows, our writing will sound more natural and be clearer if we write in our own voice and incorporate language that we understand. Trying to write in a style that’s not fully our own can lead to awkward or confusing writing. However, in removing all the “fat” from our writing, we might also run the risk of sounding too terse. There has to be a balance. The message must be clear above all else.
“. . . Generally, the fewer the words that fully communicate or evoke the intended ideas and feelings, the more effective the communication.” —Mark Twain
Redundancy and Repetition
One way to write more concisely is to eliminate redundancies and when needed, to avoid repetition.
Redundancy is a word or phrase that simply repeats something previously stated, and it doesn’t add anything new. Redundancy is considered superfluous writing, as in the example below:
Wordy: Students should sit at a minimum of at least a distance of 6 feet apart.
Improved: Students should sit at a minimum of 6 feet apart.
Wordy: The stock market set a new record high.
Improved: The stock market set a record high.
Examples of some common redundant phrases are below. You can communicate in one word what is stated in two or more:
At the present time
Red in Color
Few in number
Repetition, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily a bad thing in writing. Repetition can aid in the understanding of complex ideas, and repetition is often used to reinforce points of argument. Reiterating important points can create a sense of ethos for the writer, communicating the author’s credibility and sincerity.
Repetition becomes problematic when a word or phrase is unnecessarily repeated, as in the example below:
Repetitive: The stock market set a record high in January, but the record high was not as high as the market would go the following month.
Improved: The stock market set a record high in January, but would go higher the following month.
Omit Bloated Phrases
Bloated phrases are another common ailment in our writing, causing sentences to be wordy.
Bloated: Due to the fact that snowy owls have lost much of their main food source in the Arctic, the rare owls are now wintering across Nebraska.
Due to the fact that is an empty, meaningless phrase often used in academic writing, but “because” is the better choice. Any time you can omit five words for one, do it.
Improved: Because snowy owls have lost much of their main food source in the Arctic, the rare owls are now wintering across Nebraska.
Bloated: For the reason that our landfills are at capacity, the city should implement a recycling program.
Improved: Because our landfills are at capacity, the city should implement a recycling program.
Bloated: At this point in time, NASA is expanding its recruitment of women and minorities.
Improved: Currently, NASA is expanding its recruitment of women and minorities.
Some other common bloated phrases include
for the most part
for all intents and purposes
as a matter of fact
in my opinion
Ease Up on Modifiers
The term “modifier” is a word that can help describe meaning, or gives more information about another word in a sentence.
Intensifiers and qualifiers are types of modifiers. Used sparingly, they can enhance writing and clarify meaning. When overused, they can create wordy sentences.
The modifier, “really” is one of the most common modifiers (and commonly overused!):
Eliminating paper waste is a really good idea. (A better idea than just plain “good”?)
Eliminating paper waste is a really, really good idea. (Is it a better idea because they’ve used two “really”?).
Eliminating paper waste is a really, really very good idea. (Or is it simply just a very good idea?).
Often, when we start to pile on these intensifiers, the word they attempt to intensify isn’t strong enough (as in the first example, “quite hard”).
Eliminating paper waste is an excellent idea.
This sentence has omitted the intensifiers and utilized more precise language. You don’t have to eliminate these words completely, but only use when you really, really must.
Better still, only use when you absolutely must.
Best: only use when you must.
Other common words that could be omitted include
basically, totally, essentially.
Our essays may require transitional words to help the reader navigate our argument’s points. Common transitional words in academic essays are ordinal (ordered) adverbs. For example:
First, second, third.
I have 3 reasons students should study abroad. First, students will more quickly learn another language. Second, they will gain a greater appreciation for different cultures. Third, students will gain a greater understanding of the world.
If I had 6 reasons that students should study abroad, it would read, fourthly, fifthly, sixthly. . .
Oh my, what if I had twelve reasons? Twelthly? Twelvely?
Dictionary icons Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster didn’t recognize “firstly” as a word. While it isn’t incorrect to use the adverbial form, firstly, secondly, thirdly, it can become a bit ridiculous, as you can see!
Finally, when concluding an essay, use “finally,” instead of lastly.
Other phrases to avoid include “and last but not least,” “in conclusion,” and “in summary.”
While “in conclusion” is a common concluding transitional phrase, your reader should know your essay is concluding by the content of the writing and the visual cue of the pages. While it might be necessary to use “in conclusion” when giving a speech, in writing, it can appear lazy and unnecessary.
In conclusion. . . the end.