Friday, January 23, 2009

Conciseness: eliminating clauses

In previous posts on conciseness, I’ve discussed several easy ways to make your writing more concise: You can boil down wordy phrases. You can delete redundant adjectives, adverbs and nouns. And you can eliminate useless metaphors.

Here’s one more way to improve conciseness, and it’s especially effective: reduce the number of clauses in a sentence. Every additional clause makes a sentence harder to read, because the reader must keep in mind all the verbs in the sentence and how they relate to each other. The verb is the most important part of speech; it commands more attention than other parts of speech.

So, you can significantly increase conciseness and readability by eliminating a clause and making the same point in a different way. Here’s a simple example, from a news story in yesterday’s Denver Post:

“A 34-year-old Grand Junction man was rescued Wednesday from a van teetering off a cliffside about 170 feet above a canyon floor [in Colorado National Monument].” (The van is visible in the photo above.)

After the rescue, the park superintendent, Joan Anzelmo, described the evidence at the scene and suggested that the accident was an attempted suicide.

“ ‘The sense we had last night was that it was intentional,’ Anzelmo said.”

Although the quoted sentence contains only 11 words, it is not a good example of conciseness. It contains three clauses (sense was, we had, it was) but needs to contain only two (we sensed, it was):

Last night we sensed it was intentional.

The Takeaway: To increase conciseness, eliminate as many clauses as possible while still conveying the same meaning.

A Good Resource: We all can learn a lot more about conciseness from The Dictionary of Concise Writing: More Than 10,000 Alternatives to Wordy Phrases, by Robert Hartwell Fiske. This is a book to keep by your elbow as you write.

My Previous Posts on Conciseness:

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