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Writing BattleGround: Concise Writing

Writing Concisely

Writing Concisely

A common challenge to writing university-level research papers is expressing your thoughts clearly by utilizing language that communicates essential information unambiguously. When you proofread your paper, critically review your writing style and the terminology you used throughout your paper. Pay particular attention to identifying and editing the following categories of imprecise writing. The following sections will give you easy tools to find common problems that people have when trying to write concisely. On the right hand side you will see a list of simple steps you can take you make your writing snappier, check each step as a great start to editing your writing. 

Content by the research guide "Organizing your Social Sciences Research Paper," at the University of Southern California.

Identify Problems

Problems with Wordiness

Wordiness is when you use more words than you need to communicate a thought, concept, or idea. 


These are phrases that have become bland and ordinary through overuse. Besides indicating lazy thinking because they are often used as a substitute for carefully thinking about what to say, clichés should not be used due to the fact that they're often embedded within a specific cultural context.

Example of Clichés
"The Iraqi diplomat is going out on a limb if he does not protect his country's economic interests during negotiations with the United States."
Others may not know what it means to be "out on a limb" [the idea of being vulnerable derived from the sport of hunting], but would someone from another culture know what this refers to?


These include modifying words such as very, literally, radically, definitely, significantly, greatly, extremely, moderately, basically, exceptionally, obviously, really, uncommonly, etc. Intensifiers create the illusion of accentuating words but, in academic writing, intensifiers do not imply exchanging the term "extremely large" with the word "huge"; if something is unusual or needs highlighting, quantify its uniqueness and place it in a comparative context. If there is no data to quantify the phenomena, then describe its significance using precise language.

Example of Quantifying Uniqueness

Incorrect: An extremely large increase in hospital visitations
Revised: A 45% increase in hospital visitations since 2010

Example of Describing Significance
Evidence that hospital visitations are increasing may impact the quality of patient services because there are no indications that staffing levels will be increased in the foreseeable future. 


This refers to a verb, adjective, or adverb that has been converted into a noun or noun phrase. Although this practice is not grammatically incorrect, overuse of nominalizations can clutter your writing. Editing the action of the sentence back into a bare infinitive verb [the most basic form of a verb] will undo the nominalization, making the sentence clearer and easier to read. 

Examples of Nominalizations
Nominalizations: "take action," "draw conclusions," and "make assumptions"
Revised: "act," "conclude," and "assume"

Stock Phrases

This refers to phrases that compromise clarity in your writing by adding unnecessary complexity to the sentence; stock phrases are similar to clichés in that they are overused terms. Stock phrases often can and should be reduced to one word.

Examples of Stock Phrases
Stock Phrases: "has the ability to," "due to the fact that," "regardless of the fact," or "at this point in time" 
Revised: "can," "because," "although," and "now"

Verbal Phrases

These are also phrases that contribute little or no meaning to the overall sentence. They are similar to stock phrases but can be reduced to a single action verb. 

Examples of Verbal Phrase
Verbal Phrase: "to come to a conclusion," "to take into consideration," or "to make a determination"
Revised: "conclude," "consider," or "determine" 

Content by the research guide "Organizing your Social Sciences Research Paper," at the University of Southern California.

Problems with Redundancy

Refers to the use of words or phrases that possess the same or almost the same meaning.

Similar Meaning

Implied modifiers can refer to the meaning of a word or phrase possessing the same or very similar meaning of the modifier. These types of modifying words can be subtle and difficult to locate but eliminating them will help clarifying your writing. 

Example of Similar Meaning
Incorrect: The next deicision of the Supreme Court is difficult to anticipate in advance

Think about the implied meaning of "antiticpate in advance"; if something is happening in advance, it is inherently anticipatory. Restate the sentence using only one of those words

Revised: The next decision of the Supreme Court is difficult to anticipate

Incomplete Thought

Implied modifiers can also suggest an incomplete thought about the subject of the sentence.

Note: This form of implied modifiers demonstrates that the act of writing concisely isn't simply about reducing the number of words you use; it is also an act of thoroughly expressing exactly what you mean to say

Example of Incomplete Thought 
Incorrect: The maritime negotiations between Japan and China remain a difficult challenge
It can be implied that any type of challenge is difficult. However, by inserting an explanation ["because"] within the sentence, you expand the thought more completely

Correct: The maritime negotiations between Japan and China remain a challenge because it is difficult to...
Also Correct: The maritime negotiations between Japan and China remain difficult because the main challenge is...

Paired Synonyms

Words paired together that have the same basic meaning may sound appealing when read aloud but they are unnecessary. Choose only one word from the pairing that reflect the meaning you are trying to convey, use a thesaurus to find a word that more accurately reflects your thoughts or eliminate them altogether.

Examples of Paired Synonyms
"first and foremost," "end result," "various differences," "sudden crisis," or "completely eliminate"

Content by the research guide "Organizing your Social Sciences Research Paper," at the University of Southern California.

Problems with unclear sentence constructions

Short, declarative sentences are easier to comprehend than length narratives. 

Active Voice

Some professors, particulary in business, technical, or scientific writing courses, may prefer that you write papers using a passive voice because they want you to convey information objectivity by using an authoritiative tone that focuses on the main idea or recommended action rather than the conscious intent underlying the idea or action. However, the passive voice frequently requires more words than is necessary to convey a thought or idea. Unless instructed not to do so, write using an active voice. 

Example of Active Voice
Passive Voice: It is believed by the state legislature that a person's picture on their drivers license must be updated every five years
Active Voice: The state legislature believes that a drivers license picture must be updated every five years

Combining Sentences

It is often true that writing shorter, declarative sentences help the reader better understand the content of each thought or idea. However, it is also the case that two or more sentences may be combined to convey the information more effectively using fewer words. Review your paper and look for paragraphs that appear wordy. This may indicate opportunities to condense sentences. All of the essential information remains, but it is stated more concisely.

Example of Combining Sentences
Incorrect: The BP oil spill occurred in 2010. This oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico prompted greater attention to regulating offshore drilling. Among these regulations was a rule governing procedures for capping wells.

Revised: The 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico prompted greater attention to regulatory procedures for capping offshore drilling wells. 

Content by the research guide "Organizing your Social Sciences Research Paper," at the University of Southern California.

Always Look for These

Delete Meaningless Words

kind of, great, really, basically,

very, extremely, probably, various,

generally, actually, quite, mostly,

particular, etc.

The basic reason for the strike was essentially a disagreement between management and staff.  

Delete Sentence Starters

These often start with "it is","there is", "there are" 

It is important to note that...
It is necessary...
There is a need...

It is obvious that the jury was misled by the defense attorney.
It was the president who started the turmoil. 

Change Negatives to Affirmatives

Not often → rarely
Not notice → overlook
Not uncommon → common
Not honest → dishonest
Did not remember → forgot
Not stop → continue

Content by the William H. Hannon Library Writing Guide at Loyola Marymount University, link to the guide here.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
Michener Institute of Education at UHN, 2018.