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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Wordiness weighs down your message. Cut ruthlessly and be concise.

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

hands holding a red marker are editing typed work

When I ask audiences to select their communication goals, being concise is a common challenge.

Why do we struggle with wordiness and why is concise communication considered more effective?

Let’s discover more about this common communication challenge and find out… is brevity always best?

Why are we wordy? How can we be more concise?

Were you ever given a writing assignment and in order to hit the word count were purposefully wordy? Wrong approach! Write concisely. Meet the word count by properly introducing and concluding your writing and by providing adequate support, examples, definitions, and descriptions. Make every word count. Wordiness is also common in first drafts. A first draft should never be a final draft. Read your work aloud. Notice clunky writing and phrases that confuse rather than provide clarity. Simplify complex writing. Make your points clearly and concisely. Your audience will understand, remember, and thank you.

Strunk and White’s classic book, “The Elements of Style” (4th edition, page 23) says it well:

"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences... This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

How can we eliminate wordiness?

Identify words that create redundancy. For example, the phrases “true facts” or “past history.” In each case, one word will do. This redundant sentence can be cut in half:

Eliminate needless or superfluous clauses that muddle your meaning. Common examples are “needless to say,” “in terms of,” and “in order to.” These phrases are like filler words, they add nothing of substance and can distract your audience from the main message.

See which of these 50 redundant phrases you use. Avoid them.

Change passive voice to active voice. Passive voice is wordier. Active voice is stronger. Notice the difference between these statements:

Passive: The report was written by the intern.

Active: The intern wrote the report.

Words and phrases such as “there is,” “there are,” or “that” can usually be deleted. “There are many methods that can be tried” becomes “Many methods can be tried” or even “Try many methods” if the desired meaning is retained.

Avoid qualifiers like really or very. If something is very big, would huge or enormous convey the meaning better? The English language has too many words to settle for weak ones.

Why is concise communication the goal?

Concise communication provides clarity and improves retention. Fewer words, carefully selected to portray meaning, convey messages more efficiently and effectively. Most longer messages can be summarized in a short phrase or paragraph. Communicating with brevity is better understood and remembered.

For all types of communication projects, strive to create a SOCO, which stands for Single, Overriding, Communication Objective. Condense your main message or key idea into a succinct statement. Use active voice. Be compelling and confident.

Concise communication is critical in headlines, taglines, mission and vision statements, and marketing copy. Even scientific journals seek shorter articles. Modern audiences favor concise communication.

Competitions to write short pieces with various word counts have become very popular. Purdue University created the “Say It in 6” competition for graduate students based on SMITH Magazine’s Six-Word Memoirs. How would you describe an experience, or even your life, in only six words?

Is brevity always better?

Brevity is usually better, but not always. To achieve brevity, don’t eliminate important evidence. Don't cut out the specificity that avoids vague writing or elements that give meaning to your message.

If a word or phrase enhances the text, retain it. If it distracts, delete it.

Short sentences can confuse, too. If a longer sentence explains a concept better, use it.

Invite review of all communication created. When brevity improves clarity, be brief. When additional words enhance meaning, keep them.

Being concise means using no more words than needed. Being concise is not using as few words as possible.

Wordiness weighs down your message. Cut ruthlessly and be concise.

Editing takes time...

“I’ve made this letter longer than usual; I haven’t had time to make it shorter.” ~ Blaise Pascal

But it's worth it ...

“The more you say the less people hear.” ~ Nicholas Barnett

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