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University Writing Center

Somes Steps Toward Concise Writing

Eliminating wordiness is a crucial part of revising prose.  Repetitive sentences, colorless word choices, and dead-weight, “filler” phrases can bore your readers so much that they may simply tune out your ideas.  Even after you’ve checked an essay for grammatical correctness, organizations, and development through specific details, search for “empty” words you can cut as well as sentences which you can combine to eliminate repetition.  Below is some advice from three writing experts on specific methods for cutting wordiness.

1. Cutting “The Really Bad Words”

In his book The I-Search Paper, author Ken Macrorie lists what he calls “the really bad words” which add wordiness to sentences without adding content.  Cutting these words can help streamline your writing.

Diminishers

  • little
  • rather
  • sort of
  • kind of
  • slightly
  • somewhat

Intensifiers

  • real (-ly)
  • actual (-ly)
  • quite
  • very
  • deep (-ly)
  • total (-ly)
  • too
  • even
  • big
  • a lot
  • absolute (-ly)

Words From the Vague Swamp

  • thing
    area
  • situation
  • process
  • problem
  • aspect
  • destination
  • concerned with
  • phrase
  • predicament
  • involved with

Wordy Sentence: As far as my professor is concerned, the problem of wordiness is the thing she’d really like to see us involved with actually eliminating.

More Concise Sentence: My professor wants us to focus on eliminating wordiness.

2. The Paramedic Of Revising Sentences

In his book Revising Prose, Richard A. Lanham compares the following two sentences.

  • Jim kicks Bill.
  • One can easily see that a kicking situation is taking place between Bill and Jim.

Lanham points out that many weak sentences over-use prepositional phrases and “to be” verbs; he advises writers to look for the real action in the sentence by asking themselves “Who’s kicking whom?”  He recommends a five-step “Paramedic Method” for eliminating wordiness and adding energy to sentences.

Step 1: Circle the prepositions (such as on, over, in, by, for, of, to) in sentences.  Can you replace any prepositional phrases?

Step 2: Circle all forms of “to be” verbs in your sentences (is, are, was, were, am).

Step 3: Ask “Who is kicking whom?”

Step 4: Put this “kicking” action in a simple, not a compound, active verb.

Step 5: Start quickly—no mindless instructions.

Sentence after Paramedic Method: Machines merely amplify workers’ abilities and exist only to do workers’ bidding effectively (13 words).

3. A Few Final Notes

  • In the The Complete Stylist and Handbook, Sheridan Baker suggests improving prose by:
  • -Cutting “there is” and “it is” constructions except when “it” refers to a specific object or animal or is used in idiomatic expressions such as “It is raining.”
  • -Cutting back on “which,” “that,” and “who/whom.”

Examples:  

[There are] many women [who] never marry.

Many women never marry.

[It is] his last book [that] shows his genius best.

His last book shows his genius best.

To practice streamlining prose before you plunge into revising your own work, try any of the above methods on the following sentences:

  1. In the next thirty-five years, it is expected by many experts that there will be a lot more engineering work to be done than has been done in all of recorded history.
  2. Another fact which is revealed by the census statistics is that 72.4 percent of the nonwhite component of the population lives in urban areas.
Updated 1.13.2012