“The most valuable of all talents," Thomas Jefferson famously said, "is that of never using two words when one will do.” While true for speech and writing, this quote is particularly apt to the realm of writing. Keeping Thomas Jefferson in mind, learn 10 tips and tricks to make concise sentences and ensure you have clear writing.
10 Tips for Writing Clear, Concise Sentences
1. Be Clear About Your Meaning
It’s important to choose the word that most accurately expresses your meaning. Many words possess denotation and connotation. That is, they have a literal meaning (denotation) and an emotional or understood meaning (connotation).
For example, if you use a word like “sneaky,” people can interpret that in a couple of different ways. They might wonder if you mean dishonest and mischievous (in a derogatory way) or surprising and silly (in a fun-loving manner). Therefore, it’s better to be direct with your words and clear about your meaning, like the examples.
Her sneaky acts left a lot to be desired.
Her deviant acts left a lot to be desired.
Her sneaky nature made our road trip one for the books.
Her silly, fun-loving nature made our road trip one for the books.
His sneaky acts made the game interesting.
His silly acts made the game interesting.
2. Eliminate Unnecessary Words and Phrases
Let’s advance Jefferson’s theory. Forget opting for two words when one will do; you’re about to slice three or more words because one will do.
I read in order to learn more about the world.
I read to learn more about the world.
He’ll be back in a period of time.
He’ll be back later.
We travel so that we can explore the world.
We travel to explore the world.
3. Use the Active Voice
If you’re using the active voice, the action of your sentences will feel more engaging. You may also try to avoid using a helping verb if appropriate. See the difference by looking at passive and active sentences.
He is enjoying his new shoes.
He enjoys his new shoes.
A decision was made by Allie this week to create all the illustrations for her novel.
This week, Allie decided to create the illustrations for her novel.
She is playing with her friend.
She plays with her friend.
See how this ties directly into rule number two? Avoid unnecessary words and phrases when you can get right to the heart of the matter with the present, active voice. For more, enjoy how active voice adds impact to your writing.
4. Get Rid of That
Okay, the word “that” is important to the English language. But, it's used more often than it properly needs to be used. For example, “that” is paramount to this sentence:
This is an example of a sentence that works.
However, you don’t need “that” in a line like:
We decided that we were going to the store.
We decided we were going to the store.
In truth, we probably overuse “that” 90 percent of the time.
5. Avoid Starting with There Is
"There is" and "there are" should send up red flags. They’re akin to “that.” Let’s look at an example of what not to do when starting a sentence:
There are three students who committed a crime.
Three students committed a crime.
In this case, why use eight words when five will do?
6. Reduce Unneeded Repetition
Sometimes, repetition isn’t only fun; it’s essential. It can accentuate a writer’s meaning and drive a motif home. However, if your repetition isn’t deliberate, cut it out. You’ll see repetition in a lot of “fluffy” catchphrases. For example, try to rework:
In my opinion, I’d rather you research a bit more before taking the plunge.
I want you to research more before taking the plunge.
“In my opinion” and “I’d rather” express the same idea.
7. Question the Use of Really
As you further immerse yourself in the online world, your written language tends to become more conversational. When you speak, you often use words like “really” and “so.” However, the written word will always be different than the spoken word. Try to avoid sentences like this:
Really, I just wanted him to leave.
So, it was apparent that she wanted him to leave.
Instead, cut right to it with these lines:
- I wanted him to leave. (“Just” is like “that.” Write it with caution.)
- She wanted him to leave. (Not only did we not need “so,” there was also an element of wordiness with “it was apparent” and “that.”)
“Really” has a few friends who are also a bad influence on our writing. They include actually, already, fairly, just, quite, totally and very. The same question can be posed to each word. Do you “really” need them? Nine times out of ten, “very” can be cut out of your copy completely.
8. Move Away from Negatives
You try to avoid negative people, so why not avoid negative writing? If you’re writing a line in the negative form, guess what that means? There’s probably a word in there you can cut out. Much like using the active voice, "positive" sentences are much more direct. Try to avoid something like this:
- Negative - If you do not have $15, you will not be able to afford a new batch of incense.
- Positive - You need $15 for a new batch of incense.
9. Remember 'If' Is an Iffy Bet
In an effort to be clear, you try to be detailed and specific. Sometimes you can overdo it, though, especially if you’re overusing “if” clauses. Here’s an example:
- If you want to be a good student, it’s important not to procrastinate.
“If” clauses should put you on high alert. Reach for your red pen and ask yourself if it’s necessary. This lengthy, clause-driven sentence can be redirected to something like:
- A good student does not procrastinate.
Not only have we eliminated the “if” clause, but also an unnecessary phrase “it’s important not to." Plus, doesn’t the second version sound more definitive and direct?
10. Choose a Strong Verb Over an Adverb
Grammarians are averse to adverbs. These are -ly words that spice up verbs. For example:
- She quickly jumped off the couch.
Sure, that gets the point across. But, what if you could knock out a word and liven things up with a stronger verb? Then, this sentence might read:
- She launched off the couch like a pellet out of a BB gun.
How to Write Clearly
Rules, rules, more rules. No wonder grammar gets a bad rap. Truth is, the rules serve to make you a better writer, not impede your writing. Embrace them; they’ll make you stronger! Whatever you do, don’t let the rules strangle your creativity. When you first sit down to write, it’s best to purge all your thoughts and words. Get them onto the page. Then, you can circle back and tweak “this” and remove “that.” This is a common rule of thumb when writing short stories. Perhaps you’ll test your aptitude for clarity and concision with a short tale or two. If so, get creative and learn how to write a short story. Until then, happy editing!