Brevity is the soul of wit: tips to tighten your writing

March 9, 2021 in Insights by Melody Lynch

This nerd loves an excuse to talk about concise writing and lives for proofreading. So I’d be remiss not to celebrate National Proofreading Day (March 8) with tips for clean and concise copy.

I like editing and proofreading others’ work, more than I enjoy writing if I’m honest. Let me start again. I like to edit and proofread others’ work… 

There’s a lesson tucked in there. 🙂

Use infinitive verbs over longer forms when possible. Change present participles or, in the case above, gerunds (“editing” and “proofreading”) to the infinitive form of the verb (“to …”) for a shorter, cleaner sentence. 

Write in the active voice. You may have noticed I began my initial sentences with their subjects, using subject + verb + object. This construction makes your writing less wordy, easier to read, and creates stronger statements. Of course, the passive voice has its place but should be used sparingly and only in appropriate contexts (see what I did there?). To spot the passive voice, look at the main verb of your sentence for a form of “be” (am, is, are, was, were) and a past tense verb (often ending in -en or -ed).

Omit unnecessary conjunctions, qualifiers and modifiers. Did anyone catch the missing “that” in “You may have noticed I…” as opposed to “You may have noticed that I…” The word “that” in this context is superfluous. Scratch non-essential “that”s to streamline your writing. Also watch for qualifiers and modifiers already present or implied (qualifiers add more information to adjectives and modifiers to adverbs, respectively).

Example: I took all possible eventualities into account before deciding to move.

Revised: I took all eventualities into account before deciding to move.

An eventuality is in its definition “a possible outcome,” so using “possible” in this sentence is completely unnecessary (as is “completely” here ;)).

Limit use of prepositional phrases. Heavy use of prepositional phrases (those beginning with “in,” “over,” “through,” “for”…), for what reason one would do this I do not know, can make sentences unclear, awkward, and longer than needed. “For what reason…” is one of these. Spot this by circling prepositions in your writing to see if you can omit prepositional phrases or replace them with a single word without losing your meaning.

Replace phrases with a single word. I find these most often in formal writing:

“For what reason” → why

“Based on the fact that” → because

“In the event that” → if or should

“For the purpose of” → can often be replaced with an infinitive verb (“to…”)

“In order to” → to

“It is necessary that” → must or should

“At the present time” → now

I could go on. If you find replacing such phrases with single words challenging (or any of these tips), consult your favourite style guide for assistance. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is an oldie but still a goldie (thank you first-year English professor and all-around brilliant human, Susan McDonald, who taught me a TON and is the grammar queen).

Change negatives to affirmatives. When you express ideas in negative form, readers need to work harder to decipher your meaning (and you’ll use more words). Unless you’re using a negative construction strategically to create more impact, stick to the positive. 

Example: If you do not have the minimum buy-in required, do not show up to play if you have not already spoken to the game host. Revised: Those with the minimum buy-in required can show up to play without speaking to the game host.

Omit redundancies. While I’ve addressed this somewhat, there are some common redundant phrases I feel I should call out here: each and every, first and foremost, true and accurate, etc. Let’s just pick one or the other eh? 

Now, I realize my hook was National Proofreading Day and not “write more concisely” day, so here are my pro tips for error-free copy.

Proofread backwards, letter by letter, sentence by sentence. Always proofread on paper. Read your content at least once aloud. And of course, do not rely on spelling and grammar checkers to do the work for you. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? P.S. If you want to learn to use proofreading symbols for more efficient editing, get in touch! I’m happy to share.

Should you require professional editing or proofreading services, contact me. I’ve edited academic papers, MBA theses, corporate annual reports, draft non-fiction books, website and social media copy – essentially anything you may be looking to produce for public consumption. Happy proofing!