Updated on March 10, 2016
9 steps to succinct writing
If your latest blog post or newsletter could pass for a dissertation, here are 9 ways to cut down your copy
Photograph by Krzysztof Puszczynski
I know, I know, it’s rich coming from me. This blog is not called The Wordy House for nothing. I talk a lot, I write a lot and, I admit, I like to make sure I get my point across – with a verbal sledgehammer if necessary.
Sometimes that’s OK. Sometimes you are telling a story, or describing a complex idea, or injecting personality into your writing. But there are times when your copy needs to be snappy. Certain types of content – news, competitions, a seasonal promotion, in fact any time that you are promoting a single idea or call to action – require short, concise, easy-to-digest text that readers can absorb in minutes.
If your copy’s a little waffly but you’re on a tight deadline and haven’t got time to rewrite the darned thing, there are several elements you can throw out without losing your core content. Let’s get straight into it (and see how many times I break my own rules as I go along, ha!):
Adverbs (words that describe or modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs) get a really bad rap. This is particularly true in fiction, where you are supposed to show rather than tell what’s happening. In fact, adverbs have their uses. They make copy more conversational and allow you to add emphasis, which in turn adds personality. They’re also useful in descriptive marketing copy (an expertly crafted bookcase; an exquisitely detailed tapestry) in which you need to persuade your reader of a product’s particular qualities. But when you’re trying to sound business-like it’s often better to cut them out. For example: very, really, incredibly, amazingly, unbelievably, slowly, quickly, happily… Too often they add little meaning or suggest that you can’t find quite the right word in the first place. There’s no need to describe a competition as really amazing – amazing on its own is fine. And “We’d be absolutely delighted to help” could be “We’d be thrilled to help”, instead. They can even be nonsensical, eg, “She’s almost always late.” You’re always late or you’re often late, but you can’t be almost always late.
A tautology says the same thing twice using different words, or reiterates a fact that is already implied:
“He reversed backwards out of the driveway.”
“They flew round and round in circles.”
“Our fruity apple juice is so refreshing.”
“It was absolutely perfect.”
“That bracelet is completely unique.”
“It’s our latest range of new vases.”
People use them in conversation to ensure they get their point across. But something is either perfect or it’s not – absolutely is redundant. If something is part of your latest range then it’s obviously new, too. And of course apple juice is fruity.
3. Relative clauses
“Our new yoghurt, made on our own farm, which is located in Devon, which is renowned for its beautiful countryside…” You get the idea. Relative clauses are those attached to another clause, usually by a relative pronoun (who, whom, whose, which, that). One is fine, two is occasionally acceptable – more than that and you’ll lose your reader.
4. Redundant conjunctions
Again, these are regularly used in conversation but have no place in your pithy blog post:
“So, let’s recap on what we’ve learnt.”
“And yet, I hope you enjoyed this post.”
“We’re proud of what we’ve achieved and furthermore we want to do even better next year.”
Just cut ’em out.
5. Fronted adverbials
A fronted adverbial comes at the start of a sentence, and describes the time, place or manner of an action:
“Last week, we launched our new line of cushions.”
“Feeling very excited, we booked a pitch at next week’s craft fair and we hope to see you there.”
“Ensconced in our workshop, we finally completed the order.”
They’re great for descriptive writing, but ask yourself if the information they contain is necessary to your reader. If you’re not trying to add colour to your writing, it’s better to go for a more direct style:
“Our new cushions are here.”
“See you at next week’s craft fair.”
“The order is done.”
6. The passive tense
Not only does it weaken your writing, but it often makes sentences longer than they need to be. Use the active tense, or rewrite altogether:
“Our traditional cabinets, which are loved by many of our customers…” > “Our popular traditional cabinets…”
“We were visited by a special guest yesterday.” > “A special guest arrived yesterday.”
Often employed to indicate the writer’s impressive knowledge and expertise, industry words and phrases are the enemy of succinct writing. Off-putting, long-winded and meaningless, they should be deleted.
8. The verb ‘to be”
When talking, we automatically use the verb “to be” while mentally searching for a different word. For instance you might say, “She’s just very… inefficient with her time”, when you’re trying to say, “She procrastinates”, or “He’s… not very sure of himself” instead of ‘He lacks confidence”. Look out for these when you’re writing and try to find a more concise turn of phrase.
Similarly, beware of the following constructions:
It is; it was; here is; there is; there will be, etc
They often shift the emphasis away from the heart of your sentence, which should be rewritten:
“It is often said that juggling is a difficult skill to master.” > “Juggling is difficult.”
“It was great to find out how much they loved our products.” > “We were delighted to hear they loved our products.”
“Here are the best ways to tackle this task.” > “Tackle this task by…”
“They are so good at creating designs that are full of bright colour and little details, which people are really drawn to.” > “People love their bright and detailed designs.”
9. Colloquial phrases
Again, we use long-winded phrases in conversation that add colour to our speech but nothing to our writing:
“Despite the fact that…” > “Although…”
“The truth of the matter is…” > “The fact is” (or cut it altogether)
‘We’re in the process of developing…” > “We’re developing…”
“At the end of the day…” > “Ultimately…”
They sound so natural that they can be hard to spot, but if you’re aiming for succinct writing then they have to go.
I can’t tell you how hard it was to avoid making exactly those mistakes as I was writing. My natural tone is, erm, somewhat verbose. But for newsy copy that sounds fresh, snappy and dynamic, it’s worth making the effort to tone all this stuff down. So, in the name of brevity, I’ll stop right here.