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How to write clearly and concisely

Image credit: Anna Barker

 

Anna Barker

When facilitating an editing workshop for second- and third-year Arts and Humanities PhD students recently, I began by asking the students how they felt about editing their work. Almost all of the students agreed that editing their thesis was as daunting as producing a first draft. For the most part, the students felt confident there were some good ideas in their early drafts but there was also a lot of waffle. They wanted their text to get to the point, and for their argument to be easy for others to understand. In short, they wanted their writing to be clearer and more concise.

Editing for concision has an added benefit: any changes you make to your text will almost always make your intended message easier to follow. Before sitting down to edit though, it’s helpful to adjust your mindset from ‘writer’ to ‘reader’. Imagining how a reader will engage with your text allows you to get some distance from it, and you can predict how easily (or not) someone else will follow what you’ve written. I suggested to my PhD students that they imagine a final-year undergraduate reader from their field, someone a little further behind them but with a degree of familiarity with the topic. Then, with their reader firmly in mind, I asked them to complete these tasks with their work in progress.

1 Reverse outline

Often, we think of editing as eliminating words and sentences, and while this is true, it isn’t the only way to make writing clearer and more concise. Reverse outlining is editing on the biggest scale—at the level of the whole draft. The students in my workshop found reverse outlining to be a useful tool to help them see where they’d gone off topic and included irrelevant information.

Reverse outline exercise

Print out a draft of your work and read through each of your paragraphs slowly. In the margin, write what the paragraph is doing to progress your argument. If you identify any paragraphs that seem redundant or stray off topic, remove them and save them in a separate document in case they are useful elsewhere. Then re-read your draft. Is it clearer?

2 Stick to one idea per paragraph

After the first exercise, some students said that instead of advancing their argument, paragraphs often felt long and confused. Each paragraph was attempting to do too many things. This is not uncommon. It’s largely because of the way of our minds work; we start talking about one thing, which makes us think of another thing and then another…When we’re editing, we can unpack each idea clearly and methodically.

Paragraph exercise

Take another look at your paragraphs to check if they each cover one main idea. If there are several important ideas mixed into the paragraph, then perhaps each idea needs a paragraph of its own. It is often helpful to follow this paragraph structure:

I –  INTRODUCE: Your first sentence introduces the point you want to make.

D – DETAIL: add detail to describe your point.

E – EVIDENCE: explore the evidence that underpins your point.

A – ANALYSIS: critique the evidence; introduce counter-evidence if necessary. Sum up what you are arguing.

Don’t be too concerned if you add words during this stage; you are also adding clarity and will achieve more concision at the next stage.

3 Vary sentence length

In her blog, Pat Thomson, a Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham, talks about the importance of paying attention to sentence length, and in particular to long sentences:

Very long sentences can be quite tricky for readers – even long-sentence-inoculated academic readers – to navigate. Too many additional thoughts all at once and the reader loses the will to go on.[1]

So, in the same way that a paragraph can carry too many thoughts, embellishments and caveats, so can a sentence. We can handle a long sentence every now and then, but reading long sentences, page after page, becomes tiring. Too many short sentences, however, and writing can seem disjointed and choppy. The ideal is to vary sentence length and be on the look-out for very long sentences that are wordy and carry too much information. Read this example, with the edited version below:

More people in China work in the tertiary sector than in any other sector, with nearly half of all employees working in the service sector in 2020, which is double the number of labourers working in agriculture that year; employees in the service sector earn far higher wages than labourers in the agricultural sector, and also economic growth has been accompanied by a rise in labour costs. (67)

The tertiary sector in China employed nearly half of all employees in 2020, double the number working in agriculture. Service-sector workers earned far higher wages. (25)

Sentence exercise

Identify sentences in your draft that are overly long and complicated. There could be too much information for a reader to reasonably follow in one sentence. To improve clarity, see if you can lose a few words or divide the sentence into two sentences.

4 Remove redundancy

Writing unnecessary words and phrases comes from our tendency to write as we speak, but they can clog up sentences.

Look out for these examples of redundancy in your writing.

Long version

Shorter version

With the exception of Except for
In order to To
In spite of the fact that Although
Due to the fact that Because
At the present moment Currently / Now
Brief summary Summary
For the purpose of For

Word-cutting exercise

Read through your work, looking for examples of redundant words and phrases. Delete them or rephrase the sentence. You might like to make a list of common redundant phrases to refer to when you are editing.

As you complete each of these tasks, you will see a clearer and more concise draft emerge.

 

[1] Pat Thomson, 2017, ‘Academic sentences’, available at https://patthomson.net/2017/03/13/academic-sentences-keepyourreaderawake/

9 December 2021
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