Technical Writing ToolBox

A Blog on Technical Writing

The Art of Concise Writing

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” – William Strunk in his classic text The Elements of Style.

What is Concise Writing?

Writers often strive to achieve conciseness in their work. But what exactly does it mean to be concise?

People often equate conciseness to short sentences. However, short sentences itself doesn’t guarantee conciseness. The sentence may be short but still unclear. Technical Writers value conciseness since it reduces reading time and often results in lower production and translation costs.

Conciseness means to provide information clearly and in very few words. The word concise has its root in the Late Latin word “concisus” which means ‘to cut short’. Words are precious and should be treated like money- spend them only when there is a necessity.

We can make our writing concise by following one golden rule: Do not waste words.

Example of Concise Writing

Let’s take few examples from Lilita Rodman’s book on ‘Technical Communication’ that explains how concise writing can make some sentences more than one-third shorter:

Original Sentence

It is our view that the building, machinery, and equipment and stock at x should be marketed (at least initially) on an en bloc basis.  It is our intention to prepare an Information Package regarding these assets and advertise them for sale on an offers basis as soon as possible.” – Original sentence (50 words)

Let’s remove the clutter:

It is our view that the building, machinery, and equipment and stock at x should be marketed (at least initially) on an en bloc basis.  It is our intention to prepare an Information Package regarding these assets and advertise them for sale on an offers basis as soon as possible.” – 17 words deleted

Now let’s look at the concise version of this sentence:

The building, machinery, equipment, and stock at x should be marketed en bloc.  As soon as possible, we will prepare an Information Package and advertise these assets for sale on an offers basis.” Concise version (33 words)


Original Sentence

The Company is involved in the manufacture and distribution of waterbed supplies including heaters, thermostat controls and mattresses. The bulk of the raw materials involved in the manufacture of the products was imported from the United States.”  – Original sentence (37 words)

Let’s throw the garbage out:

“The Company is involved in the manufacture and distribution of waterbed supplies including heaters, thermostat controls and mattresses. The bulk of the raw materials involved in the manufacture of the products was imported from the United States.” – 14 words deleted

What about its concise version:

The Company manufactures and distributes waterbed supplies, including heaters, thermostat controls and mattresses. Most of the raw materials are imported from the United States.”  – Concise version (24 words)


As a writer I often struggle to make my writing concise especially when the context is highly technical. I’d love to hear from you about effective ways of removing clutter from writing. Leave a comment and let me know.

Photo Credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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22 responses to “The Art of Concise Writing

  1. Ashish April 13, 2012 at 3:06 am

    Hi Gurpreet, Thanks for writing and sharing about concise writing skills with examples. To cut down the technical content I would suggest following:
    1. Mark text in bullet points. Easier to break down the length. Later on you may convert in a sentence by joining them together.
    2. Get to know the exact process/working of that technical thing.

    Example: “If you click on this button on control panel of this product then you will get this results and with these results you can achieve such an such thing”. looks unprofessional.
    Option 1 – bullet points “Follow the procedure as given below: A) Click on this button on control panel B) This result will be displayed C) Such an such thing will be achieved
    Option 2 – follow process “In order to achieve such an such thing click on this button on control panel which will display this result”

    Kindly let me know if you find this useful. Not sure if you need to know about too technical processes/working.

    Thanks,
    Ashish.

    • Gurpreet Singh April 16, 2012 at 3:42 pm

      Hi Ashish,
      Thanks for your comment and valuable suggestions. I think using bullets definitely makes it easy to comprehend information and is more eye-friendly than a long paragraph. I also think that chunking long topics into small topics definitely aids in making things more usable for readers.

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  3. OmmWriter April 17, 2012 at 6:42 am

    Hi Gurpreet,

    Thanks for posting this. There’s definitely a need for increased awareness about wording.

    Our own goal at OmmWriter is facilitate a simple and effective writing experience, and hence we quite often think about how to write straightforward and concise text.

    What would you say, for you, are the three most important things to consider when making yourself understood in as few words as possible?

    Many thanks and best regards,

    The OmmWriter Crew
    http://www.ommwriter.com

    • Gurpreet Singh April 22, 2012 at 7:22 pm

      Thanks for your comment. I’ve downloaded the base version of OmmWriter and got pretty impressed by its simplicity. I’m writing a review of OmmWriter and will shorty post it on my blog. The three things I vote for are: Effectiveness, Correctness and Readability.

  4. Seth April 17, 2012 at 7:52 am

    My rule when editing for conciseness is: does it move the work forward? Are the words efficiently conveying the subject or operation?

    I have learned that sometimes the ‘frivolous’ words that are usually cut by tech writers are the very words that can put a reader or client at ease. Our writing can be rather stark at times. If we leave a few of those words in (words like ‘is involved in,’ etc.), we can soften the piece for the reader. A softer piece of writing may be able to contain more complex concepts for a lay audience than a stark one. Know the audience before you trim the fluff. Some people like fluff. Some people need it.

    Great article.

    • Nevena Mancheva April 17, 2012 at 10:52 am

      That was my conclusion as well after a month of writing help documentation – fluff is sometimes needed and helpful.

      • Gurpreet Singh April 22, 2012 at 7:17 pm

        It really depends upon the audience, Nevena. When I was working in the semiconductor industry, my target audience were RF scientists and RF Engineer who disliked fluff. I’m sure other audiences may need more context and may even welcome fluff!

    • Gurpreet Singh April 22, 2012 at 7:28 pm

      Thanks for sharing these wonderful tips and for your kind words, Seth. I do believe that it really depends upon the maturity of audience and not everyone (specially beginners) can handle instruction written in a concise way- they may need more context for proper understanding.

  5. Feilong Ling April 19, 2012 at 2:09 am

    Thanks for the precious information. As a non-native speaker of English, to write concisely makes me free of remembering too many words and expressions which are not very useful. I have more courage to use the language.

    • Gurpreet Singh April 22, 2012 at 7:15 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Feilong. As a non-native speaker of English myself, I can understand your point very well. Even for translation, concise writing reduces the cost and efforts.

  6. Radhika April 24, 2012 at 12:55 am

    Your first example: “The building, machinery, equipment, and stock at x should be marketed en bloc. As soon as possible, we will prepare an Information Package and advertise these assets for sale on an offers basis.” is concise, but does not convey the same meaning.

    While writing concisely, it is also important that the meaning is not lost or incorrectly interpreted.

    • Gurpreet Singh April 27, 2012 at 11:12 am

      Thank you for reading my blog and for your comment, Radhika. I agree that there is a bit ambiguity in the first example and it could be drafted in a better way. I used both examples as they were presented in the Technical Communication book. If meaning is lost then there is no point of making a sentence concise.

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  12. Joao Fernandes December 30, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    Nice post.
    Since I’m always concerned with concise writing, I often start by writing drafts without any constraints. Later I edit what I wrote basically to fix typos, but mostly to decrease the number of words.
    A tool that I find valuable is the Hemingway App. It often tells me where I should cut to make the sentences clearer.

    At my company, we’ve created a culture of working this way, and ensuring our docs are crisp and clear.
    If you want to learn more about it, check my post about How to Ramp-up Your Tech Writers.

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