Why is it so important to write concisely in academic writing? To allow your meaning to come across clearly. Redundant sentences, unnecessary phrases and repetition distract your reader from what you are trying to say and can sometimes obscure your meaning completely. They can make your work seem overly wordy and confusing.
Here is a list of obvious phrases to look out for and remove:
- I think that / It seems to me that / In my opinion
- In order to (just use ‘to’)
- Needless to say
- In actual fact / in fact /generally speaking
- In the process of
- Whether or not (just use ‘whether’)
- All of the (simply say ‘all’)
- There is / there are (avoid starting sentences with these!)
- Each and every (‘every’ will do)
- Actually, literally, basically, probably, usually, likely, extremely, practically, definitely, somewhat and kind of
- Unnecessary prepositions such as ‘miss out’, ‘as from’ and ‘separate out’
- Can be considered as/are considered to be
- Compared to (when you say that something is bigger compared to something else, don’t you really just mean that it is bigger than the other thing?)
However, eliminating obviously clunky phrases is not necessarily enough to ensure that your language is precise; there are many other steps that you can follow to achieve this:
- Use pronouns. Don’t be afraid to use pronouns—but always ensure that their designation is clear. For example:
The Science and Communications Programme is of the highest standard. The students enrolled in the Science and Communications Programme come from all over the world.
The Science and Communications Programme is of the highest standard; its students come from all over the world.
The Science and Communications Programme is of the highest standard and the university attracts many students; its students are from all over the world. (Here, it is unclear whether the possessive pronoun ‘its’ refers to the Science and Communications Programme or to the university.)
- Use the verb rather than the noun form. Many words have both verb and noun forms. Consistently using the noun forms of words can make your writing appear overly wordy. Use the verb form where possible to speed things up. For example:
Several scans of the data were undertaken to confirm the mean.
The data were repeatedly scanned to confirm the mean. (Using the verb ‘to scan’ in its noun form requires the addition of an extra verb—‘to undertake’—which can now be removed.)
- Delete your adjectives. Replace them with numbers, quotations (where possible), names or dates. For instance:
The huge building had a large number of staff who all enjoyed eating at the restaurant down the road.
‘We all love eating at Hank’s Barbecue!’, claimed a spokesperson for the 1,270 staff of the 20-floor Gerard Building.
- Combine sentences. Sometimes when writing, we add new information as an afterthought and in the form of a whole new sentence. Often, this new information does not need its own sentence. When editing your writing, look out for sentences that can be combined. For example:
The study took a total of three years and two months to complete. By its end, 350 students had been interviewed.
The study, which interviewed 350 students, took three years and two months.
- Change negatives into positives. Very often, negative constructions convey information that, with a positive spin, would conserve words. So, remember to look on the bright side. For instance:
The research team decided the data were not unnecessary after all and should be included.
The research team decided the data were necessary and should be included.
- Use the active voice. Check your sentences to ensure that you use the active rather than the passive voice as much as possible. In the active voice, the subject comes first and acts on the other elements of the sentence. However, in the passive voice, the subject either comes last or is not included at all. This can mean your sentences require additional words not required in the active form. To identify the passive voice, look at the verb. If the sentence includes a form of the verb to be (i.e. were, was, is, are, am) directly before a verb in the past tense (e.g. studied, undertaken, decided, revealed), the chances are it’s passive. For example:
Passive (too wordy):
Active (more concise):
- Stay on topic. Every time you write a new sentence, ask yourself how it relates to what you are trying to express. If it doesn’t directly address your topic, delete it—or, if you feel you really must include it, put it in a footnote. Once you start checking every sentence like this, you’ll be amazed at how your writing improves.
Emily Finlay, PhD, AE (IPeD)