I continue my series on writing style with lesson 7 in Williams and Colomb’s book Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (10th Edition). The topic in this post is writing concisely or, as they title it, with “concision”.
Perhaps the single most difficult skill to learn in writing is writing concisely. I have a homemade signed affixed to my desk that contains a quote from William Strunk Jr.’s famous book The Elements of Style. It reads:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences.
This sign is made of A4 paper. I created it when I was just beginning my Ph.D. in 2002. Writing concisely continues to be one my primary target in writing and more often than not I don’t hit it. Let me put it this way. The first thing I write hardly ever concise. I have found that concision comes through many revisions. This is really a first principle. I think if you set out to write concisely at first, you’ll paralyze yourself. You will be so careful about every word that you’ll not actually get a flow of thought even started. Concise writing comes at the end of a process of writing. It is where the journey must terminate, but it is not the first destination.
I think Williams and Colombs realize this because they present the five principles of concision in the form of editing strategies.
1. Delete words that mean little or nothing – especially “clear our throat” words (e.g. actually, particular, really).
2. Delete words that repeat the meaning of other words –especially double words (e.g. full and complete, first and foremost, any and all).
3. Delete words implied by other words – especially redundant modifiers (e.g. predict future events), categories (e.g. period of time), and general implications (e.g. “trying to learn” = learning).
4. Replace a phrase with a word.
5. Change negatives to affirmatives.
Williams and Colombs caution the reader with these most memorable words. After stressing concision so strongly they advise would-be writers:
Readers don’t’ like flab, but neither do they like a style so terse that it’s all gristle and bone (114).