I recently had a session where conciseness was the main topic raised. I offered advice at the time, but thought it useful to search around more and write up a summary for future reference.
Initially, the main advice is to consider that ‘Clear writing is clear thinking’ (Osmond, 2013: 128). A writer needs to check at the outset that they thoroughly understand the topic they are writing on and what the question is actually asking for, to prevent drifting and padding. One good way to do this is to explain the topic to someone. Alternatively, the writer can continuously ask themselves why a particular point, or phrase, is being used in the writing as it is develops. It can also help to plan an overarching structure in advance of any scribbling down, perhaps in a bullet point list or on a mind map, as well as dividing out the word count to each section; or to attempt the essay under mock exam conditions, before cherry-picking the most inspired ideas and organising the layout more carefully thereafter.
Once a clear plan of attack is realised, conciseness becomes key, especially when the word count is overshot. This is about seeking the shortest, yet most effective and accurate way of expressing the relevant ideas in the essay. It is often during the editing stage, or even in feedback, that conciseness rears its head.
So, the writer knows they’ve exceeded the word count. They’ve read the work over, possibly out loud, and cut a few bits here and there that seemed a bit superfluous or clumsy. They may even have realised that this sentence here began a tangent they didn’t need. But what else can possibly be cut?
Not in all cases is the following applicable, because the writing still has to make sense and convey the requisite information and ideas. But many of these small reductions can often be made in any work:
• In long quotations, sometimes the middle chunk is not needed, so an ellipsis or … can be inserted, provided that the rest of the quotation makes sense as a sentence, eg ‘I learned this, at least…: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams…he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours’ (Henry David Thoreau, Walden).
• Reducing redundancy of meaning: personal opinion, in the WW1 conflict, band of musicians, despite the fact that, anticipate in advance, a short summary, three in number.
• An offshoot of this is reducing the repetition of a word, phrase, or term, which could be rewritten or paraphrased for both variety and succinctness.
• Can it be said in fewer words or sentences? This has the added benefit of being simpler, clearer, more purposeful, and doesn’t sound overly formal: Wales is thought by many to have beautiful and majestic scenery, which makes it so popular as a holiday destination. (20 words) –> The beauty and majesty of Wales secures it as a holiday destination. (12 words); He believed but could not confirm (6 words)–> He assumed (2 words); subsequent to –>after; on the grounds that–> because/given; is able to –> can; a number of–> several.
• Omit filler words which only embellish needlessly or can even offer too much hesitation for academic writing, where tangible examples or statistics might have been more useful: really useful, very interesting, somewhat problematic, definitely, actually.
• Omit weak and superfluous phrases: There is a telling passage…, In the event that…, At the moment…, For all intents and purposes…, in the area/field of …, it has been said that (better to put the actual reference?).
• Avoid clichés: face the music, first and foremost.
• Avoid negative phrases, which are wordier and harder to comprehend than the positive equivalents: If you do not want to get into trouble when submitting an essay, you should not copy other people’s work without citing them in an act of plagiarism. (28 words) –> Avoid plagiarism and penalisation when submitting work, by citing other people’s work in an essay. (15 words)
• Choose verbs over noun phrases, adjectives, or prepositional phrases, which cuts down on words and makes the work more active and decisive in tone: The report gave an analysis (5 words) –> the report analysed (3 words); are suggestive –> suggest; the reason for the failure of the basketball team in the final game (13 words) –> the basketball team lost the game because (7 words).
• Also use the active voice where possible: Students were set an exam by the University (8 words) –> The University set students an exam (6 words).
In short (pun intended!), it may be painful to cut into the labour of love and forgo the eloquence the writer has polished over many weeks, even months. However, academic writing is for purpose and not for poetry. So the sooner a pragmatic intent is realised, the easier it will be to shape the work without too many tears at the end. One analogy I like to use, from personal experience of being terrible at it, is if I had to pack light and only take one small suitcase on a weeks’ trip, what would absolutely have to go in, what could I easily live without, and if there were any spare room, what would my priority list look like and why?
Osmond, Alex (2013). Academic Writing and Grammar for Students. London: SAGE Publications. (In Peer Mentor library).