Grammar Series: Tighten Your Writing For Conciseness

Jan 11, 2023 | Blog

Concise writing is a skill that takes time and practice, but it’s worthwhile because it means your finished book will be much better. Why? Because concise writing is easier to read. Also, readers can quickly spot a book written by an amateur. It may sound as easy as cutting words to get to a lower word count, but conciseness is about much more than length. It’s a style and ability to set your work apart. So, just how do you tighten your writing for conciseness? Read on for 11 tips you can implement today.

Cut unnecessary words

Yes, this is the most obvious suggestion for tightening your writing. Cutting unnecessary words, or employing brevity, will instantly produce tighter copy. Take a look at a sentence and ask yourself:

  • “Is there a shorter way to say this?”
  • “Is every word here necessary?”
  • “If I remove or change a word, is the meaning still the same?”

Often, there’s a shorter way to say the same thing. For instance, “she nodded her head,” can be tightened to “she nodded.” The head is implied (Do you nod anything aside from your head?). Keep the following mantra in mind: Less is more. Aim to write less and say more at the same time. It sounds contradictory, but strong writing will follow this approach.

Avoid jargon

Knowledge of your audience and language is essential. Jargon, or overly technical vocabulary, might cause a reader to put a book down. Don’t be tempted by the power of thesaurus to throw in complicated words. The average novel is written between a 7th and 9th-grade reading level.

Simpler is better

You’ve heard the acronym KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. When in doubt, simpler is better for word choice, sentence length, etc. Why write “utilize” when you can say “use” (Hint: Did you know there’s a Microsoft Word tool that gives you statistics about your document, including average sentence length and reading level?)

Write in active voice

There are two main voices in writing: Active and Passive. You want to write in an active voice because it is considered stronger and more direct. An easy way to check your active voice is to ensure the subject is acting. You can recognize it by thinking, “Who did what to whom?” Here’s an example:

Active: The teacher passed out the exam.
Passive: The exam was passed out by the teacher.

See the difference? It’s a minor tweak but has a major impact on your writing. Many writing softwares can scan a document for passive voice, which is a great chance to catch it.

Check your adjectives and adverbs

Writers love adjectives and adverbs because they help describe your subject or setting. It’s fun to see how descriptive you can be, but all the exposition can get a little wordy. Try to cut a few qualifiers here and there to see if your description is still evident but in a more concise way. Adverbs are often unnecessary, and a stronger verb gets the same point across. Instead of “he ran quickly,” you could say “he dashed” or “he sprinted,” which implies quick running.

Remove unnecessary punctuation

If you’re a word person, chances are you love extra punctuation, such as colons, semi-colons, and dashes. However, setting a clause off with punctuation only increases the sentence length when it might have been possible to cut the sentence length or eliminate the clause. Re-read the passage to see if it’s necessary or if you can insert a period instead.

Remove “start to”

Did your character “start to stand,” or did she just “stand”? Did he “start to stir the pasta,” or did he just “stir” it? In most instances, “start to” is unnecessary and can be removed.

Do you really need “really”?

She’s really pretty. He’s very tired. Try replacing “really” and “very” with a stronger verb. Eliminating a descriptive word will greatly help brevity.

Use contractions for flow

Fiction writing should be natural, like how a person would speak. Contractions are more conversational and help with the overall flow. For example, instead of “I cannot come tomorrow,” say “I can’t come tomorrow.”

Cut a few dialogue tags

He said, she said. Yes, readers need to know who is speaking in a scene, but only some dialogue tags are necessary. When characters go back and forth in conversation, you don’t need to include their names each time. Once every couple of lines makes the scene flow easier and helps tighten the writing. However, it’s important to use tags when a new character enters the conversation or if there’s a big gap, such as internal thought or description.

“That” is a problem (sometimes)

We use the word “that” a lot because we believe it gives more specificity. In reality, many sentences can stand alone without it. Read the sentence and remove “that” — does it still make sense? Here’s an example:

Sara thought that the play was boring.

Sara thought the play was boring.

Now you have a better idea of writing concisely and how to achieve it. So, get your manuscript out and start revising! The finished product will be better for it.

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