How to Write Concisely in English

As a writer and editor, I have noticed that native English speakers often use extra words when writing. This is ineffective. My advice: be concise.

First, let’s discuss passive voice. Passive voice turns the direct object into the subject so that something or someone else can act on it. For example, The report was submitted by the administrator uses passive voice. Active voice reads, The administrator submitted the report. Active voice eliminates two words and is easier to read.

active-and-passive-voice-diagram

Why is it easier?

In mystery stories, stating It was done by the butler lacks the impact of The butler did it. Dr. Seuss’s title Horton Hears a Who is much more fun than The Who that was heard by Horton.

You want attentive readers. Active voice allows the brain to process the ideas more easily. Passive voice requires extra mental work to connect the parts of a sentence, which makes people tired. Also, changing passive voice to active voice can reduce the length of a document.

However, I recommend using the passive voice in specific situations. Active voice can sound like an accusation when someone makes a mistake. Stating John did that creates blame. Instead, That was done removes the blame and reduces tension.

Another use for passive voice is to highlight the direct object as the most important idea in the sentence. Moving the direct object to the front of the sentence (through passive voice) does that.

active-voice1-150x150Use active verbs for greater impact. Find and replace to be verbs, including I am, you are, and it is. In the first paragraph, I initially wrote fewer words are better; which I changed to, use fewer words; and finally to, be concise.

Often, active verbs hide as nouns. Words ending in -ment, like development, can become verbs, like develop. Many résumés include phrases such as, Responsible for the development of …, which really means Developed … – five passive words, three of which have no substance, versus one word that says it all.

You can also shorten your writing by eliminating some prepositions, particularly of. Here is how you can eliminate of or of the in English:
* use the possessive case (‘s)
* use nouns as adjectives

English uses the possessive case (‘s) when something belongs to a living creature, like a person, an animal, a fish, an insect, or a lizard, or anything else with a proper name, like a place or an organization. Examples include:
* John’s house
* the chef’s restaurant
* the shark’s teeth
* England’s prime minister
* Coca-Cola’s commercials

For non-living things, English typically uses nouns as adjectives to eliminate of. Examples include:
* technology conference
* computer screen
* school records
* company policy

Richard Lanham’s Paramedic Method defines this whole process well:
* Circle prepositions
* Draw a box around is
* Find the action
* Change the action into a (simple) verb
* Move the act-or to the front
* Eliminate slow starts
* Exception: setting the context
* Eliminate redundancy

To shorten your writing further, remove anything unnecessary. (This includes repetitious ideas.) Review your writing to determine what people need to know versus what you want to say. (There is a big difference.) Be honest with yourself. All writers delete well written but unnecessary material.

One other thing, and I think this applies to any language: express ideas in a positive way. (i.e., don’t express ideas negatively.)

How will this help me?

When you use fewer words, you entice people to read your writing. When you write concisely, people find you easier to understand. And when you express ideas positively, people appreciate your tone.

Professionally, the demand in the United States for good writers offers opportunities to those who learn to write effectively in English. Most job announcements include strong communication skills. Good writing skills are surprisingly uncommon and can help you throughout your education and career.

 

Meet Liam Hickey

Hickey_Photo

Liam Hickey currently teaches ESL with Corporate English in Guadalajara, Mexico.  Via Willpower Careers, Liam also works as a career coach, teaching people how to write effective résumés, research companies, interview and negotiate salary, network, and more.  His clients also benefit from his ten years of technical writing and consulting experience.

He can be reached at CorporateEnglishLH@gmail.com or Willpower.Careers@gmail.com.

 

Comments

  1. While fewer words might seem better, some care is needed. Consider the example above. “John was responsible for the development of B,” does not mean “John developed B”. If cutting out words changes the meaning, do not do it!

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