How to Identify & Reduce Wordiness in Writing

Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

The overuse of words is a very problematic issue in any form of writing. But how do you actually cut down on wordiness? This lesson gives tips on how to identify and reduce wordiness.

Wordiness

Words are an indispensable component of a well-functioning society. They allow for communication, which is essential for groups of people to work together. Imagine going through a day without speaking or writing a single word to another human being. Wouldn't that be frustrating?

Having established the importance of words, we must also discuss how using words haphazardly can be nearly as bad as having no words at all. This disposable sort of thinking can lead to wordiness, which occurs when more words are used than necessary to convey a message.

For instance, look at JFK's famous quote:

  • 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.'

Imagine if he said this instead:

  • Don't worry about all the benefits of living in the United States that you may be able to take advantage of at some point in your life, but instead focus on how you as an individual will be able to improve the community of people living in this region of North America.

The first quote has 17 words. The second has 52. More than triple! Furthermore, which version makes the best impact on the audience? Clearly the second one loses much of its meaning due to the unnecessary use of words.

Ask not what words can do for you, ask what you can do with your words!
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For this reason wordiness is more than just a nuisance; it can lead to demeaned importance and confusion. Whenever possible, you should focus on reducing wordiness in your writing. The rest of this lesson focuses on how to do so.

Repetition

When reducing wordiness, first look for repetition, which occurs when words or ideas are repeated. Many students unconsciously form the habit of repetition, especially when writing long papers. Just because an idea is reworded, it does not mean you're avoiding repetition or saying anything new.

Fixing this sort of repetition can take some serious thought. Depending on what it is you're repeating, you may have to delete whole sentences, even paragraphs. One way to reduce repetitive ideas is to ensure each paragraph has its own clear topic. Rearrange sentences or paragraphs to accomplish this. If you still have repeating ideas, then try adding in new information that will support the topic of each paragraph. In this way, you can replace the repeated ideas with new information.

The repetition of one word or phrase, however, is much easier to correct. Usually you can use synonyms or delete it altogether. Large can be replaced with huge or tremendous. Also, the phrase on the other hand can be replaced with the word however. Repeating words and ideas is actually pretty common in writing. Through practice, though, you'll be able to eliminate this form of wordiness!

Unnecessary Words

After you have fixed any repeating words or ideas, look for unnecessary words, which are any words that can be removed without changing the meaning of a sentence. These are words that aren't needed. Consider the following sentences:

  • She knew that the class was ending in five minutes.
  • She knew the class was ending in five minutes.

The word that was removed completely from the second sentence, but the meaning remained intact. Another instance of unnecessary words often occurs when a phrase can be shortened to just one word, as follows:

  • As is often the case, students use any excuse for not doing their homework.
  • Often, students use any excuse for not doing their homework.

The second sentence replaces the whole beginning phrase with one word: often. Lastly, many qualifiers, which are words that attribute a quality to another word, can either be removed altogether or replaced with more appropriate words. Adverbs, like very and extremely, are common qualifiers. Read these examples:

  • The teacher was very happy.
  • The teacher was ecstatic.
  • The student was extremely sad.
  • The student was depressed.

Look to delete unnecessary words in your own writing to reduce wordiness.

Reorganize

We already discussed moving around sentences or paragraphs to reduce repetition, but you can also reorganize, or modify the structure of sentences and paragraphs, to help reduce wordiness. Essentially, this means adjusting or moving words and phrases to make your writing more concise.

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