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Improve Writing by Eliminating Words

5 Rules for Avoiding Wordiness: How to Improve Your Writing by Eliminating Words

Dec 06, 2012 - Posted to  Writing in General
Getting rid of wordiness is one of the toughest parts of writing and proofreading, especially when you're doing academic work. When you're struggling to just get words down on the page, using too many words is often the last thing on your mind. But no matter what you're writing, using fewer words to say more is always better than using more words to say less. So, next time you're about to hand in a research paper, essay, or lab report, take the time to edit for conciseness and clarity using these five rules of wordiness.

Rule #1: Never use two words when one will do

It's a common mistake to think that adding more words will make your paper sound more formal and important. Phrases like "concerning the matter of..." and "in light of the fact that..." might sound impressive, but really they're just taking up space that could be devoted to more concrete ideas. That's why the first rule of wordiness is to never use two (or three, or four) words when one word will do.

Common phrases that can be replaced with a single word

When writing and proofreading, keep an eye out for these common phrases that can easily be replaced by a single word:
  • "it's possible that..." (replace with "might" or "maybe")
  • "there's a chance that..." (replace with "might" or "maybe")
  • "has the capacity to..." (replace with "can")
  • "it is necessary that..." (replace with "must" or "should")
  • "it is important that..." (replace with "must" or "should")
  • "in light of the fact that..." (replace with "because")
  • "under circumstances in which..." (replace with "when")
  • "with regard to..." (replace with "about")
  • "at this point in time..." (replace with "now" or "yet")
  • "as a result of..." (replace with "because")
  • "in the event of..." (replace with "if)
  • "in order to..." (replace with "to")
Incorrect
There's a chance that the author of the article was merely mistaken, but in light of the fact that he has not fixed the mistake at this point in time, it seems unlikely. (33 words)
Correct
The author of the article might have been mistaken, but because he has not fixed the mistake yet, it seems unlikely. (21 words)
Incorrect
As a result of exposure to the smoke, there's a chance that many of the firefighters will need to go to the hospital. (23 words)
Correct
Because of exposure to the smoke, many of the firefighters might need to go to the hospital. (17 words)

Periphrasis

Periphrasis is the literary term for the using lots of words to describe something that could instead be described using a concise, commonly known word or phrase. It's a literary technique used frequently in poetry and fiction, but it has no place in serious academic work.
Incorrect
The place where we live is great, but I don't think we'll renew our lease.
Correct
Our apartment is great, but I don't think we'll renew our lease.
Incorrect
The author describes how the main character acts around her family and how she feels about them.
Correct
The author describes the main character's relationship with her family.

Rule #2: Get rid of useless words and phrases

Redundant wording

When you're writing there's no need to say the same thing twice, but a lot of common phrases do just that. For example, when you say something is a "true fact," you're using two words that mean the same thing. If it's a fact, then by definition it's true; if it's true, then by definition it's a fact. There's no need to use both words together - it's redundant and distracting. Here are some other common redundant phrases:
  • unexpected surprise
  • vast majority
  • end result
  • currently at this time
  • brief summary
  • free gift
  • famous celebrity
  • lower down
  • enter into
  • continue on

Unnecessary modifiers

Be careful about modifying words that don't need modifiers. Words like really, very, and positively are usually included for emphasis or to intensify, but they don't add any new meaning to the sentence.
Incorrect
Lincoln thought it was very important that Congress pass the bill before the end of the year.
Correct
Lincoln thought it was important that Congress pass the bill before the end of the year.

Expletive phrases

Expletives are phrases with it or there followed by a to be verb, for example, "it is" or "there are." While these can sometimes be used for emphasis at the start of a sentence, it's more likely that they're unnecessary and are just adding extra bulk to your paper. To get rid of expletives at the beginning of sentences, eliminate the "to be" verb and make the object of the expletive phrase the subject of the sentence.
Incorrect
It is the teacher who needs to grade the exams.
Correct
The teacher needs to grade the exams.
Incorrect
There are three people who know the combination to the safe.
Correct
Three people know the combination to the safe.

Infinitives

Stringing together infinitive verbs (unconjugated verbs with the "to" still attached) makes sentences difficult to read and wastes valuable space on the page. Usually those infinitives can be turned into action verbs to shorten the sentence and make the meaning clearer.
Incorrect
It was her job to check participants into the conference and to hand out gift bags.
Correct
She checked participants into the conference and handed out gift bags.
Incorrect
My roommate wanted to have a party, but I told her the noise would cause our landlord to be angry with us.
Correct
My roommate wanted to have a party, but I told her that the noise would anger our landlord.

Nonessential information

Know your audience and trust them to be able to fill in obvious and implied information in a sentence. Prepositional phrases that tell the reader things they already know can be cut.
Incorrect
When we ate at the restaurant, I ordered salmon from the waiter and my friends and I split a piece of cheesecake between us. (The reader knows that you eat at a restaurant and that you order from the waiter, so you don't need to tell them. Between us is redundant since the word share has already been used.)
Correct
At the restaurant I ordered salmon, and my friends and I split a piece of cheesecake.

Rule #3: Use complex sentences

Another common place to find extra words is in short, choppy sentences that repeat the same information. Often a short sentence contains information that doesn't need to stand alone and can instead be combined with the clauses around it to create new sentences that uses fewer words.
Incorrect
The main character in Heart of Darkness is Marlow. Marlow is a ship captain. He is hired by a Belgian company to captain a boat that is headed into the Congo. The goal of his mission is to located the missing Kurtz. (43 words)
Correct
The main character in Heart of Darkness, a ship captain named Marlow, is hired by a Belgian company to captain a boat that is headed into the Congo to locate the missing Kurtz. (33 words)
Be on the lookout for sentences that start with "this," "these," or "that," as these types of sentences can usually be combined with other clauses.
Incorrect
The couch and the table belong to my roommate. These won't be sold in the garage sale.
Correct
My roommate's couch and table won't be sold in the garage sale.

Rule #4: Say what you mean

A lot of unnecessary words are used in student essays to hedge, backpedal, or imply uncertainty. But when you're writing a paper, it's better to be firm than to dance around your point with unnecessary words like might or seems or with phrases designed to cajole the reader such as it should be obvious or as you can see. So, when you're writing, stay away from iffy words and just say what you mean.
Incorrect
As you can see from the studies, students are much more likely to complete their homework if they are allowed to have an extra hour of sleep. (27 words)
Correct
The studies show that students are more likely to complete their homework if they are allowed an extra hour of sleep. (21 words; also notice that an extra infinitive verb was edited out.)
Incorrect
The author might be using nature imagery to show how the characters connect with their spirituality.
Correct
The author uses nature imagery to show how the characters connect with their spirituality.

Rule #5: Be ruthless

The last step in proofreading your paper for conciseness is to go back through it line by line to find all the words that you don't need. This is often the hardest part of proofreading. Once you've put in all that effort getting sentences down on the page, it can be painful to erase them, but it's important that you be ruthless in your editing.
Go through your paper word by word and ask yourself whether each word is performing a unique and important task in the sentence. If you find phrasing that's repetitive or vague, take it out or rewrite the sentence to get rid of wordiness. It might make it more difficult if you're trying to meet a word limit, but it will improve the quality of your writing.
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