Cut the Fluff (and Other Keys to Concise Writing)
I’ll try to keep this short, sweet, and to the point. How’s that for a long-winded explanation of concise writing?
Writing is a universal skill. Whether you are writing a conference abstract, magazine article, email, sales page, or the next great American novel, your words have meaning. Power. The ability to translate thoughts into action.
And there’s no shortage of colloquial idioms about it either: “The pen is mightier than the sword” comes to mind, for one.
And not far behind is the adage that less is more. “Brevity is the soul of wit,” or so says Hamlet.
Writing concisely has immeasurable benefits. Whether you’re trying to give your audience the biggest bang for their buck, hold the attention of a distracted reader, or cram as much value or knowledge as possible into an allotted word count on an exam or scholarship essay, each word that you write should have value and meaning that earns its spot on the page.
As a college instructor, I encountered as much fluff as I did “accidental” plagiarism. It didn’t take much reflection to realize that this phenomenon likely stemmed from a strategic economy of work (getting the most mileage out of already expended effort on research), and I used to call this the Kuzco problem.
The Kuzco Problem
Even if you don’t know the movie, chances are you’ve seen a meme with a caption along the lines of “me writing essays” or “English majors be like…” and the following dialogue from the film:
“Oh right, the poison. The poison chosen specially to kill Kuzco. Kuzco’s poison.”
I saw a lot of this needless repetition in essays I graded. It does wonders for a minimum word count, but very little for the reader. As much as writers seemingly struggle with writer’s block, we sure do have the ability to say a bunch of nothing in a whole lot of something, don’t we?
Cut the Fluff
The Kuzco problem is not unique to students, and it’s not always employed strategically as a way to extend the length of a piece of writing.
In fact, as an editor, some of the most frequent revisions I make involve trimming the fat that clogs the arteries of smoothly flowing prose. Most people agree that complex and superfluous verbiage (read: fluff) hinders text rather than elevating it.
If we are not naturally gifted with brevity, concise writing is often achieved through editing. For writers, the editing process can be painful, especially if we’ve poured our hearts, souls, and brain cells into the words on the page.
You may have residual memories of a teacher’s red pen marks on school assignments, bleeding all over the misplaced punctuation and poor word choices. I tend to take a gentler approach with my clients on most days, but I must be ruthlessly objective in my own writing and kill my darlings—something that does not come easy, but typically results in cleaner prose.
Would you kill to have concise writing?
Those of you familiar with my background in criminology probably don’t find this nomenclature all that shocking, but others who are not fellow crime scholars may be wondering what these darlings even are and why on earth I would want to eliminate something that sounds so cute and harmless, let alone how this level of cold-blooded murder is relevant to writing at all.
So, before you alert the authorities, let me explain…
In writing, the advice to “kill your darlings” usually refers to removing those super cool, sophisticated, beautiful passages that show off your impressive vocabulary and clever command of the English language, but aren’t actually necessary to the purpose of your writing or don’t move the piece forward.
In other words, cut the clauses that don’t stick to the point, and if you can’t bear to erase them entirely, copy and paste them into another document for a rainy day. They can sit in the Graveyard of Embellishment until there’s a legitimate need to resurrect them. (And sometimes they can come back.)
Now, speaking of words that come back…
Reiterated or Redundant?
Do you have Broken Record Syndrome? To cure this common pitfall and become a more concise writer, train your eye for repeated content or redundant phrases.
Repetition is sometimes necessary to emphasize an idea or drive home a particularly compelling point, and restating things in a different way may be required to unpack complex topics to allow readers to fully explore their nuances.
However, writing can become cluttered by redundant words and phrases, like “self-portrait of himself” or “ATM machine”, both of which are fully explained by their own first half: self-portrait (meaning a portrait of oneself) and ATM ( an abbreviation for automated teller machine).
Trimming these phrases to the bare necessities improves cadence and flow, in addition to managing word count.
It’s also a good idea to revisit those wordy phrases that may sound nice and help you feel good about the length at which you can discuss a given topic—there’s usually a simpler way to express the thought.
Concise writing both counts words and makes the words count.
In technical terms, economy of language is the idea that the fewer words you use, the clearer your message is likely to be. Straightforward language is often more meaningful to the reader, especially in the digital age when people’s attention spans are increasingly limited.
To improve economy of language in your own essay or article, consider pruning prepositional phrases and adopting the “KISS” method (keep it simple, students/sister/sweetheart/whatever s-word you prefer here).
For instance, instead of saying “the classroom of the third grade teacher had green leaves taped on the door,” remove the prepositional phrase “of the third grade teacher” and replace it with a possessive.
The third grade teacher’s classroom had green leaves taped on the door.
You can also revise the sentence to accommodate “on the door” differently if you wish to shorten it further.
The third grade teacher’s classroom door had green leaves taped on it.
Personal style will play a role in any edits that are made, but the rule of thumb is if you can say it in fewer words—do!
Extra words may also be hiding in commonly used connectors. For example,
- “Due to the fact that” can easily become “because”
- “In regards to” can become “regarding” or “about”
- “In order to” can become “to”
Simple changes like these can reduce your word count and not leave your reader out of mental (or actual) breath by the time they reach the end of the sentence.
Ready to Revise?
Concise writing takes practice, and working to kill your darlings, reduce redundancies, and trimming excess verbiage are great places to start honing this skill.
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Elle Teshima is an editor and writing coach who helps academic and entrepreneurial writers share innovative and compelling work with clarity and confidence. To work with Elle, get in touch here.