Pi may go on forever, but your writing shouldn't. Pi Day is celebrated on March 14 (i.e. 3.14), and in honor of everyone's favorite endless irrational number, we've curated six tips for more concise writing.
Overly Long Words. Eschew sesquipedalian diction! In other words, don't use long words--at least not when short ones will do. Our language has a rich lexicon, but you don't need to dive for your thesaurus every time you write. In a 2006 paper, Psychologist Daniel M. Oppenheimer of Princeton University noted that, "a majority of undergraduates admit to deliberately increasing the complexity of their vocabulary so as to give the impression of intelligence." He concluded that using needlessly complex language resulted in a negative impression of the writer's intelligence.
Wordy Expressions. Brevity is the soul of wit, so get to the point. Unnecessarily wordy expressions like due to the fact that use multiple words to do the work of one or two. (Pro Tip: due to the fact that can be replaced with because or since.) The University of Wisconsin-Madison compiled an excellent list of wordy expressions and their concise substitutes here.
Excessive Repetition. Pi continues infinitely without repetition or pattern, which is fine and dandy for a mathematical constant. However, effective writing makes use of repetition to reinforce important ideas. In our grammar handbook, we advise that although "repetition and elaboration are fine tools for drawing the reader's attention to a certain point, you don't want to go overboard or do it unintentionally." Writers often unintentionally repeat words or phrases; the best way to correct this is to read your work out loud.
Run-On Sentences. In a previous post, we explored the common errors of run-on sentences and comma splices. Run-ons are sentences that incorrectly stitch together multiple independent clauses. Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty offers different solutions for run-ons, each suited to different writing styles. Overly long, rambling sentences, like those of Henry James, aren't necessarily wrong from a grammar standpoint. However, they can come across as old fashioned and readers may get lost in the syntactical twists and turns.
Endless Paragraphs. How long should a paragraph be? According to Mark Nichol, "A paragraph has to be long enough to reach its end." This Zen advice may be true, but it isn't helpful for the frustrated writer who just wants a clear answer. While there is no definite word count, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association recommends that, "if a paragraph runs longer than one double-spaced manuscript page, you may lose your readers. Look for a logical place to break a long paragraph, or reorganize the material." Given the typical word count of a typed, double-spaced page, you shouldn't exceed 125 words in a single block of text.
Rambling Writing. Online content in particular needs to stay on target. Ken Lewis, writing for Forbes, said, "You have to structure your online content to let the viewer (who is not yet a 'reader') find and understand your main point quickly. You must help your audience decide to stick with you by being succinct and clear in your narrative." In other words, don't ramble. When in doubt, use the following formula:
- Introduction: Tell your readers what you're going to tell them
- Body: Tell your readers something
- Conclusion: Remind your readers of what you just told them
While writers like Malcolm Gladwell sidle up to their topics in long-form essays, the rest of us should take the direct approach.
What's your pet peeve when it comes to rambling writing? Let us know (in clear, concise sentences) in the comments!