How to write succinctly

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How to Write Succinctly

Nine quicks tips to improve your writing brevity and clarity

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Lee Dickinson, chief editor

By Lee Dickinson

Bookediting.co.uk chief editor

Writing succinctly is one of the best ways to improve your words.

Most editors facing a gun-at-head demand for one polished-prose golden rule would pick it because, among the many ways to refine writing, enhanced brevity and clarity have the most impact.

That’s great news, because it’s a game-changer that’s also habit-forming and fairly simple to master. Below, I have nine easy tips to help you do that.

Oddly, research for this blog revealed the need for simple advice. For a subject all about being brief and clear, many articles on how to write succinctly instead confuse.

One “Masterclass”, for example, states: “Amateur  writers tend to fear shorter sentences, erroneously believing they’re inherently less sophisticated.”

In a piece on writing succinctly, it’s surprising to find a syllable-busting line with “erroneously”, “inherently” and “sophisticated”.

Using the nine steps, it could become: Amateur writers often shun short sentences for being too simple.

The rewrite reduces 13 words and 32 syllables to 10 words and 17 syllables. Those sorts of figures transform writing, especially books, reducing their word count and even making them more attractive to cost-conscious publishers.   

Writing fiction too? The videos below will help with characterisation, dialogue, plotting and writing inspiration. The control on the right sets them to your full screen size.

Another article advises: “Don’t be shy about naming them again and again, it’s less boring to reread ‘MacNeice’ or ‘the Senator’ or ‘the mycelium of pine mushrooms’ than having to re-read sentences to check what ‘he’ or ‘it’ might be referring to.”

Naming them “again and again” will hurt the succinctness the article’s promoting and, in any nearby use of the subject or object, it’s not clear why there would be any confusion.

Also, please be wary of advice from sources with the likes of comma splices (“… naming them again and again, it’s less boring to read …”) and variant spellings in the same sentence (“reread” and “re-read”). 

Elsewhere, the refrain to limit sentences to 20 words or fewer is so rigid it leaves little room for the gold dust of an author’s ‘voice’. Skilled book editors strive to preserve voice, and sentence lengths are part of that. Authors should vary them as part of good writing practice, but that can only be curbed by such a severe upper word count. Several of the sentences above are more than 20 words, but they’re still succinct.

Sure, lean toward short sentences for simplicity, but don’t get caught up in a numbers game likely to stifle voice and sap creativity.

When experts in book editing add to the confusion on how to write succinctly, the need for clarity is even more acute. So, let’s get to those nine tips:

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1 Avoid ‘fluff’ words

They creep in, so the only cure is caution. In that sentence, my fingers wanted to add “just” before “creep in”, but it’s one of the main culprits. Some writers add it before crucial points, but one of its meanings is “only”, so it can seem to oppose what it precedes and, when used with strong adjectives, it dilutes, so is just plain bad. Among the other main offenders are: that, actually, currently, literally, virtually, entirely, completely, obviously, suddenly, absolutely, really, simply, very, now, rather, both, quite, then, in fact.

Awkward phrases include: in order to, different kinds, a bit, sort of, vitally important, reason why, join together, each and every, end result, free gift, general consensus, mass exodus.  

2 Choose shorter words

Some of the best writers make this look easy, but they’ve worked at it. It becomes a mindset, helping writers edit as they work, using ‘start’ and ‘buy’ instead of ‘commence’ and ‘purchase’, thinking first about smooth reading. The bestseller A Man Called Ove is a superb current example, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn excels in his writing’s humble beauty. The authors have weighed every word, asking: is there a simpler option?

3 Fix poor or missing punctuation

Like great sports referees, the best punctuation should quietly control. Heavy-handed comma use is the main culprit. Semicolons can be worse, because they’re often used wrongly and confuse most readers. While some don’t see it as a succinctness issue, bad punctuation harms brevity by slowing readers. If in doubt, go for a light touch and omit the punctuation. Always read your writing back carefully and, if you stumble, look first for heavy or absent punctuation. If you struggle with punctuation, as many writers do, find the best editor you can.

4 Remove jargon

This is another ‘creeper’. It’s tempting to sound clever, but the writer’s king is clarity. My own job of book editing is awash with jargon, but it’s jarring for authors to read editor reports of ‘in medias res’ openings, ‘TPO emphatic’ and ‘FP embedded’, so they must be explained. Doing so will add to the word count, but succinctness is also about being clear.

5 Delete clichés

Being so familiar, our brains reach for clichés lazily so, as with fluff, use caution. In speech they’re less obvious, but writing needs more care. It’s not ‘thinking outside the box’ to write the likes of ‘in the nick of time’ or ‘a whole new can of worms’. If it sounds reassuringly familiar, ditch it.

6 Don’t emphasise

The great book editor Sol Stein summed this up neatly: one plus one equals a half. Every repetition of an idea weakens it. Trust your reader and your writing to make the point once. For passionate writers this can be the hardest advice, because they often struggle to swap zeal for the restraint of focused, succinct writing. A skilled editor is a fine ally here. One-shot point-making is a great habit, because it forces the focus on quality.

7 Be brutal

Do the words earn their place, or are they padding to reach a word count? An honest second pair of eyes is priceless here. It’s a similar tip to not emphasising, but distinct; this isn’t about the point’s repetition, but its wider value.

8 Use contractions

The likes of ‘don’t’, ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’ sound more natural and save words. Most skilled writers are adept at mimicking speech, removing readers from the page through an illusion of talking one-to-one. Contractions suit that magic spell. Some warn against them, and it’s wise to consider your audience but, away from academic and formal writing, they’re the best option.

9 Choose the ‘active voice’

‘The sentence was rewritten by the book editor’ is eight words and passive. Swapping subject and object gives us six active words: ‘The book editor rewrote the sentence.’ The active voice is usually best, save for some academic, legal, professional and formal texts.

 

These simple tips belie the saying on how to write succinctly used since at least the 17th century: “I would have written something shorter, but I didn’t have time.”

Yes, it’s a skill, but not complex. The dating of that saying shows the battle for brevity has been fought for centuries, proving it’s a fight worth winning.

© Lee Dickinson, Bookediting.co.uk, 2023

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at Bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.

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