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Wordiness

"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."1

To write concisely, you need to be unafraid to delete. If your text is very wordy, you may end up deleting half a sentence or even half a paragraph. This is normal. Everyone struggles with wordiness. Concise writers are writers who have deleted much of what they originally wrote.

Daniel Oppenheimer on receiving the Ig Nobel Prize in 2006

"My research shows that conciseness is interpreted as intelligence. So, thank you."

So how do you simplify your structure and cut unnecessary and redundant words?

1. Cut empty phrases, nuance if necessary with a verb or modal verb.

In empty phrases, the words don't refer to anything. A prime example is

It is important that...

Here, the structure is the giveaway: it refers to nothing-- it's a placeholder-- and is is an empty verb.

Remove the following phrases:

  • It is important that
  • It is essential that
  • It is necessary that
  • It is a fact that
  • It is believed that
  • It is clear that
  • It is emphasized that
  • It is known that

If necessary, replace these empty expressions with modal verbs like may, might, could, should, or must. Or use other verbs like need.

It is important that researchers conduct thorough experiments to ensure accurate results.

Researchers must conduct thorough experiments to ensure accurate results.

It is essential that the treatment is given promptly.

The treatment must be given promptly.

You can also remove:

  • there is/are/was/were
  • it is/was
WordyConcise
There is a need formust, should
There is a chance thatcould, may, might
It could happen thatcould, may, might

2. Cut empty or ambiguous words, replace if necessary with a concise version.

Empty words don't add any specific meaning, like:

  • arguably
  • needless to say
  • recent
  • significant (unless it refers to a statistical difference)

Some words force the reader to stop reading, go back up, re-read, and restructure the sentence in order to understand:

  • aforementioned
  • respectively
  • former/ latter

You can fix these reader-stopper constructions with parallelism:

Units A, B, and C had 8mL, 10mL and 12mL left, respectively.

Unit A had 8mL left, unit B 10mL and unit C 12mL.

You can replace many wordy expressions with shorter alternatives:

Due to the fact that the budget is limited, we cannot proceed with the project.

Because the budget is limited, we cannot proceed with the project.

Use the list below to help you recognize common wordiness:

WordyConcise
a lot ofmany
a number ofsome, many
a small number offew
along the lines oflike
are of the same opinionagree
as to whetherwhether
ask the questionask
at a rapid raterapidly
at an earlier datepreviously
at the age of 30at age 30
at this point in timenow
by means ofby, via
by way ofby, via
chose to useused
due to the fact thatbecause
in the event that/ofif
in close proximity toclose to
in order toto
in excess ofmore, over
in a similiar mannersimilarly
in light of the fact thatbecause, since, why
inasmuch asbecause, since
in the process ofwhile (or delete)
in/with regard to/reference toabout, concerning, regarding
increase in sizegrow
decrease in sizeshrink
more often than notusually
over the course ofthroughout, during
on the occasion ofwhen
previous/prior tobefore
subsequentlylater
subsequent toafter
this is whybecause, since, why
this shows thatthus,
the reason for/whybecause, since, why
the way in whichhow
the majority ofmost
the time at whichwhen
the place at whichwhere

3. Change zombie nouns into verbs, remove empty verbs.

Changing zombie nouns into verbs forces you back into a simpler subject-verb-object structure:

There was a statistically significant association between these symptoms and the medication dose received.

These symptoms were significantly associated with the medication dose received.

Then you can look at your main verb and make it more precise.

For example, if your main verb is impact or affect, ask yourself: "How does it impact/affect something?"

If your main verb is associate, ask yourself: "How are these things associated with each other?"

more precise

These symptoms were significantly associated with the medication dose received; in other words, the higher the dose the patients received, the more symptoms they experienced.
OR
Patients who received a higher dose of medication experienced more symptoms.

Here are common zombie nouns that can easily be changed back into verbs. Read more about zombie nouns.

NounVerb
have an impact onimpact
have an effect onaffect
bring to a conclusionconclude
give consideration toconsider
give authorization forauthorize
exhibit a tendency totend to

Often you will have both unnecessary words and zombie nouns together:

This method improves the quality of the data, leading to an increase in the signal to noise ratio.

This method improves the quality of the data, thus increasing the signal to noise ratio.

4. Use active voice

Active voice sentences tend to be shorter than passive voice sentences. If you have no reason to use passive voice, then explore what active voice can offer you. Remember that active voice sentences do not always have to start with we.

Learn about active voice.

5. Remove redundant adjectives and adverbs.

“Most adjectives are ... unnecessary. Like adverbs, they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don't stop to think that the concept is already in the noun.”2

Learn about adjectives and adverbs.

Why does conciseness matter?

The fewer words a reader has to read, the better. If you remove vague, empty, and redundant phrases, the reader will be able to see your message more easily. Choose your words carefully. Use subject-verb-object structure as much as possible. Pay attention to the topic position.

How important is it?

On a scale of 1-10, it's an 8: very important! When you reduce wordiness, you improve precision. Concise writing is directly connected to simple structures, precise verbs, and parallelism. Are you having trouble removing wordiness from your text? Ask for help!

Footnotes

  1. Strunk and White, The Elements of Style. A classic.

  2. William Zinsser,On Writing Well. Also a classic.