“Omit needless words.” William Strunk, Jr. wrote this succinct mantra in The Elements of Style, the classic writing manual that was later amended to and published by E.B. White (it’s now commonly referred to as “Strunk and White”). He then wrote, “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” In other words, the thing needs to work.
Unless you’re writing a novel whose purpose is to be flowery, poetic, and dramatic (hellooo, Dickens!), you’re trying to communicate as clearly as possible. This is especially the case if you are writing an essay proving, say, the use of symbolism in Lord of the Flies or why you, above all other applicants, deserve to go to College X. If you’re writing to persuade, you need to do it in a way that convinces the reader that you’re trustworthy, confident, and knowledgeable.
One of the most important steps in the writing process is revision, and when you’re in that disorienting, confusing, but ultimately rewarding phase, you need to be on the lookout for clutter like this:
1) Unnecessary qualifiers. These are words that make your point seem important, but they do nothing but make you sound desperate to convince.
○ Ugh: “I really, really want to go to your college because of your really strong arts program.”
○ Better: “I want to go to your college because of your strong arts program.”
2) Redundant words, sentences, and phrases. Have you already stated something? Then you don’t need to do it again! These redundancies can sneak into your writing without your noticing.
○ Ugh: “I woke up at 3 a.m. in the morning.” (Unless you’re living in an alternate reality, there’s only one kind of a.m.)
○ Better: “I woke up at 3 a.m.”
○ Ugh: “His past history with mechanics came in handy.” (As opposed to, what, his future history?)
○ Better: “His history with mechanics came in handy.”
○ Ugh: “Her views on gay marriage evolved over time.” (How else does something evolve”)
○ Better: “Her views on gay marriage evolved.”
3) Wordy phrases. Politicians use these all the time because they sound important. However, they make your writing sound … like you’re running for office.
○ Ugh: “In spite of the fact that I love music, I am a chemistry major.”
○ Better: “Though I love music, I am a chemistry major.”
○ Ugh: “William Golding is able to use symbolism to convey savagery.”
○ Better: “William Golding uses symbolism to convey savagery.”
4) Overall wordiness. You know it when you see it, usually after reading the same sentence four times without understanding what it means. Here’s a tip: locate the subject of your sentence and start from there. (And don’t be afraid to turn one confusing sentence into two simpler ones!)
○ Ugh: “It wasn’t Stacy’s fault that she went to the mall but her parents weren’t there so she left, and we couldn’t find her.”
○ Better: “Stacy left the mall because her parents weren’t there. As a result, we couldn’t find her.”
Will all of these changes automatically make your writing more concise? Probably not. Writing concisely takes practice. It’s worth the work, though, because being concise is important. Really.
Our goal is to help our students become confident and independent academic writers. We teach students how to perform systematic research, create outlines, revise effectively, and appropriately cite sources. Moreover, we work hard to teach students why these things are important, and how to enjoy doing them. We work with students in the context of formal courses, but we are also happy to create bespoke writing tutorials for students who need outside assistance or would like to practice during vacations from school. We also support students preparing to sit for the Writing section of the SAT, GRE, GMAT, TOEFL, or any other standardized exam.
In addition to helping students learn how to structure and communicate their thoughts in writing, our expository writing tutors will help you craft exciting, successful admissions essays, and beat standardized exams that test verbal skills. We have helped countless students shape their application narratives and transform their stories into compelling pieces of writing.
Looking for some other helpful writing tips? Check out some of our previous blog posts below!:
Two common grammatical mistakes to avoid in polished writing
Writing: Knowing Your Audience