Writing Tip #27: Revising for Concision and Clarity

Revising for clarity and concision means working hard to choose appropriate words and structures, to avoid repetition and redundancy, and to present ideas and evidence in such a way as to keep the reader following your argument exactly. You want the reader to climb into "the palm of your hand"; and you want to keep that reader right with you for the duration of the essay. Then, you want the reader to believe you and to act accordingly. Professional editors and proofreaders typically go over manuscripts five or six times during the editing and proofreading process.

Let's look at a few quick revision techniques that may prove useful.

  1. Cut out the wordiness; eliminate words that take up space without saying much. Example: "It is a fact that most arguments must try to convince readers, that is the audience, that the arguments are true." Notice the beginning of the sentence: "it is a fact that" doesn't say much; if something is a fact, just present it. So begin the sentence with "most arguments..." and turn to the next bit of overlap. Look at "readers, that is the audience"; the redundancy can be reduced to "readers" or "audience." Now we have "Most arguments must try to convince readers that the arguments are true." Let's get rid of one of the "arguments" to produce "Most arguments must demonstrate (their) truth to readers," or a similarly straightforward expression.
  2. Check the location of relative clauses or adverbial and prepositional phrases and move them to the most effective position in the sentence. Example: "The murder, when it took place, astounded the entire community, which was in the ghetto, with its brutality and racial overtones." Note the placement of the "when..." adverbial clause and the "which..." relative clause. Look at two revisions that simplify and clarify the sentence: (1) When the murder took place, it astounded the entire ghetto community with its brutality and racial overtones. (2) When the murder, with its brutality and racial overtones, took place, it astounded the entire ghetto community. We may prefer #2 because it tells the reader that the murder was brutal and had racial overtones, not that the community was brutal with racial overtones. And we can go further by cutting the phrase "when the murder took place" because the crime isn't a murder until after it has taken place. So a final version: The murder, with its brutality and racial overtones, astounded the entire ghetto community. Or: The brutal murder, with its racial overtones, astounded the entire ghetto community.
  3. Placement of modifying phrases affects focus and clarity; related ideas should be kept close together in paragraphs. You don't want the reader to have to piece together the parts of your argument. Your projected organization promised logical sequencing of ideas (and evidence); hang onto your thesis and follow your projected organization throughout the paper.
  4. Pronouns cause problems for the reader when the reference is unclear. Unattached pronouns are confusing; be sure the reader can locate the "head noun," the noun to which the pronoun refers. Consider this sentence: This is very important. What is this? Relative pronouns (this, that, these, those, who, which, that) cause special problems if the noun to which they refer (or relate) is not specified or is removed at some distance from the pronoun.
  5. "Grammar Gremlins" are grammar errors that pop up frequently in an individual's writing. If you find that you repeat errors such as subject-verb disagreement, using plural pronouns when you should use singular, not using possessive form correctly, or any of a myriad of potential grammar errors, make a list of those "gremlins." Then, when you are proofreading your essay, check carefully for each of your favorite mistakes and correct it.

Use a recently published, up to date writing handbook. In it you will find warnings about many more "bloopers" that are easy to make and easy to "read right over" when you review your essays. Develop strategies such as reading from hard copy, rather than off the computer screen, reading aloud, and looking carefully at each sentence for "gremlins" that may have found their way into your essay.