Suzanne has taught 12 years in the NC Public School System and three years at Campbell University. She has a master's degree in English Education.
May I Have Your Attention?
At a recent school assembly, a speaker gave an inspirational speech on the negative effects of bullying. The teachers were excited about this opportunity for students to hear why and how to stop this growing epidemic. The man began with a story about his own experiences. Then he defined bullying. He proceeded to give facts and statistics. After twenty minutes, I began to see the students squirm. After one hour, hardly anyone was paying attention. The man spoke for almost two hours, but I think our students only heard about fifteen minutes of the message. He lost their attention because his message, though good, was too long.
Did you know that the average attention span for adults is now less than a minute? So many things compete for our attention in today's society that no one seems to be able to stay focused on one task for too long. We must keep this in mind when writing technical documents. The longer the document, the less likely we are to keep our readers' attention, which means valuable information may not be communicated. Instead, we must focus on simplifying our message to keep it clear and concise.
Being concise means that you're using only the necessary amount of words to describe an idea. Writing with conciseness prevents confusion by eliminating wordiness and saves time by shortening the document for easier reading. To achieve conciseness in a document, avoid using unnecessary phrases, verbs, and words.
Eliminating Unnecessary Phrases
It should go without saying that it is absolutely essential to avoid each and every phrase in our writing that generally doesn't have, for all intents and purposes, a specific meaning.
Did that sentence make any sense? Could you find the actual message hidden among the extra information? The problem with the sentence above is that there are so many unnecessary phrases it's hard to sift through the 31 words to find the actual meaning of the sentence.
We somehow believe that if our sentences are long, then they sound more intelligent. This is a false assumption. Phrases that are not specifically important to your topic, like 'it should go without saying,' 'absolutely essential,' 'each and every,' 'generally' and 'for all intents and purposes' only make the message more confusing. If we take these phrases out, we're left with a concise, easy-to-understand sentence:
'Avoid phrases in writing that don't have a specific meaning.' These ten words have meaning -- they express a clear idea, and the message doesn't get lost in the extra language of the sentence.
Here are some types of phrases to avoid in technical writing:
- Clichés are overused expressions and should be avoided because they can often be misinterpreted. Some examples of clichés are: time will tell, the writing on the wall, and play your cards right.
- Qualifiers are words that modify the meaning of another word in intensity and should be avoided because they can make your writing sound uncertain and informal. Examples include: kind of, probably, and essentially.
- Redundant phrases are words that say the same thing twice. Some examples of redundant phrases include: end result, hopes and dreams, and oftentimes.
- Stock phrases are long phrases commonly used that can be replaced with one word. For example, 'due to the fact that' can be replaced with 'since,' 'in reference to' can be replaced with 'about,' and 'prior to' can be replaced with 'before.'
When looking at your own writing, ask yourself if the language you've chosen for each sentence expresses the specific idea you are trying to convey. If you find that you have added phrases that do not add meaning to the sentence, delete them in order to keep your writing concise.
Eliminating Unnecessary Verbs
When simplifying your writing for conciseness, examine your verb usage. There are two types of verbs: action verbs and state-of-being verbs. Actions verbs express action, such as jump, kick and hide, while state-of-being verbs are forms of 'to be,' such as am, is, and was. Sentences using state-of-being verbs often use more words to express the same meaning. Let's look at an example:
'The purpose of a frog is to eat flies.' This sentence uses the verb 'is,' which is a state-of-being verb. The sentence uses nine words to express the action of a frog. Now let's look at the same sentence using an action verb:
'Frogs eat flies.' Notice that by changing the state-of-being verb to an action verb, the length of the sentence is reduced to just three words. When looking to make your writing more concise, consider changing your verbs to actions verbs.
Even some action verbs, however, can become wordy when we start to use phrases instead of one-word actions. Look at the following verb phrases that could be made more concise by using a stronger action verb:
- 'make a proposal' could be changed to 'propose'
- 'work on analysis' could be 'analyze'
- 'find a solution' could be 'solve'
The key to keeping documents concise is to choose the language that best expresses your message in the least amount of words possible, and choosing a strong verb can help eliminate wordiness.
Eliminating Unnecessary Words
Growing up, we're taught to add adjectives to make our writing more descriptive. 'The flower grows in the garden' becomes, 'The beautiful, fragrant, red flower grows in the luscious, vibrant garden.' For creative writing, these additional words help paint a picture in our minds, adding to the beauty of a story. But in technical writing, these words just get in the way of the message. To keep your documents concise, cut out unnecessary words that do not add to the required information of the text.
For example, if you find a sentence in your writing that says, 'The unique nature of the beautiful flower creates a need for the plant to have direct, bright sunlight,' you could easily rewrite the sentence to say, 'The flower needs direct sunlight.'
To determine which words should be kept and which can be discarded, ask yourself, what is the main point I am trying to make? Which words do I have to keep to express that point? Any extra words can be eliminated.
In the fast-paced world of business, where employers and employees have little time to spare, it is important to keep technical documents concise to hold our audience's attention and make the document easier to understand.
Conciseness can be achieved by:
- avoiding unnecessary phrases such as clichés, qualifiers, redundancy, and stock phrases
- using action verbs instead of state-of-being verbs
- eliminating extra words that do not add meaning to the sentence
Using only the necessary amount of words to describe an idea will save time for your audience, better keep your reader's attention, and add clarity to your message.
Once you've completed this lesson, you should be able to:
- Identify the purpose and advantages of conciseness in technical writing
- Explain ways to achieve conciseness
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