Part 4: Writing
Keeping words and sentences short (conciseness) can help your audience understand your message in the way you intended. What does it mean to be concise?
- How do you feel when you read a short message? Does it feel rude? Is it easy to understand?
- Do you typically write long messages or short messages?
- Do you think your writing is wordy?
- Do you feel confident in recognizing what elements of writing may make it wordy?
- What strategies do you use to make your writing more concise?
It is easy to let your sentences become cluttered with words that do not add value to your message. Improve cluttered sentences by eliminating repetitive ideas, removing repeated words, and editing to eliminate unnecessary words.
As a general rule, you should try not to repeat a word within a sentence. Sometimes you simply need to choose a different word, but often you can actually remove repeated words.
Original: The student who won the cooking contest is a very talented and ambitious student.
Revision: The student who won the cooking contest is very talented and ambitious.
If a sentence has words that are not necessary to carry the meaning, those words are unneeded and can be removed.
Original: Andy has the ability to make the most fabulous twice-baked potatoes.
Revision: Andy makes the most fabulous twice-baked potatoes.
Original: For his part in the cooking class group project, Malik was responsible for making the mustard reduction sauce.
Revision: Malik made the mustard reduction sauce for his cooking class group project.
Many people create needlessly wordy sentences using expletive pronouns, which often take the form of “There is …” or “There are ….”
Pronouns (e.g., I, you, he, she, they, this, that, who, etc.) are words that we use to replace nouns (i.e., people, places, things), and there are many types of pronouns (e.g., personal, relative, demonstrative, etc.). However, expletive pronouns are different from other pronouns because unlike most pronouns, they do not stand for a person, thing, or place; they are called expletives because they have no “value.” Sometimes you will see expletive pronouns at the beginning of a sentence, sometimes at the end.
There are a lot of reading assignments in this class.
I can’t believe how many reading assignments there are!
Note: These two examples are not necessarily bad examples of using expletive pronouns. They are included to help you first understand what expletive pronouns are so you can recognize them.
The main reason you should generally avoid writing with expletive pronouns is that they often cause us to use more words in the rest of the sentence than we have to. Also, the empty words at the beginning tend to shift the more important subject matter toward the end of the sentence. The above sentences are not that bad, but at least they are simple enough to help you understand what expletive pronouns are. Here are some more examples of expletive pronouns, along with better alternatives.
Original: There are some people who love to cause trouble.
Revision: Some people love to cause trouble.
Original: There are some things that are just not worth waiting for.
Revision: Some things are just not worth waiting for.
Original: There is a person I know who can help you fix your computer.
Revision: I know a person who can help you fix your computer.
While not all instances of expletive pronouns are bad, writing sentences with expletives seems to be habit forming. It can lead to trouble when you are explaining more complex ideas, because you end up having to use additional strings of phrases to explain what you want your reader to understand. Wordy sentences, such as those with expletive pronouns, can tax the reader’s mind.
Original: There is a button you need to press that is red and says STOP.
Revision: You need to press the red STOP button. Or: Press the red STOP button.
When you find yourself using expletives, always ask yourself if omitting and rewriting would give your reader a clearer, more direct, less wordy sentence. Can I communicate the same message using fewer words without taking away from the meaning I want to convey or the tone I want to create?
You will give clearer information if you write with specific rather than general words. Evoke senses of taste, smell, hearing, sight, and touch with your word choices. For example, you could say, “My shoe feels odd.” But this statement does not give a sense of why your shoe feels odd, since “odd” is an abstract word that does not suggest any physical characteristics. Or you could say, “My shoe feels wet.” This statement gives you a sense of how your shoe feels to the touch. It also gives a sense of how your shoe might look as well as how it might smell, painting a picture for your readers. See the table below to compare general and specific words.
Bailey, E. P. (2008). Plain English at work: A guide to business writing and speaking. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
This chapter contains material taken from Part 1 “Foundations” in the Professional Communications OER by the Olds College OER Development Team (used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license). You can download Professional Communications OER for free at http://www.procomoer.org/.