Staying on track: 5 tips for writing concisely
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Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
~William Strunk, The Elements of Style
Conciseness boils down to this: expressing as much as possible without using unnecessary words or details. Concise writing is brief and precise, but that doesn’t mean it has to be dull and dry. Help your children apply some of these tips for writing concisely.
1. Stay on track
Staying on topic is a surefire way to encourage writing concisely. When your student takes tangents and rabbit trails, he loses his focus and ends up with cumbersome, awkward, or disjointed writing. Help him create an outline before he begins writing so that he’s less likely to wander off the path.
2. Be precise
The more concrete the word choice, the clearer the writing. Your child can be wordy and say “the shaggy gray dog with the long hair hanging in his eyes,” or he can simply say “the gray sheepdog.”
3. Use plain English
Many students mistakenly think that big words impress. In truth, effective writing uses simple, straightforward language. While a handful of mature, well-placed vocabulary words can raise the level of a story or essay, using too many can make a piece of writing seem verbose, over the top, and just plain hard to read. Unless you’re writing for a scholarly audience, don’t overdo the vocabulary.
4. Avoid super-long sentences
To train children to be concise, attach a word limit or try restricting the number of paragraphs and sentences they can use. This will help them say what they need to say in the space allotted.
When kids are first learning to write descriptively and use a thesaurus, the pendulum can swing wildly from three-word sentences to 20 or 30-word sentences. It’s okay to give them the freedom to play with words; they’ll find their center over time. Just know that you may need to gently correct if their zeal begins creating log jams in their writing.
5. Don’t be redundant
Redundancy refers to extra words or phrases that should be cut out. Your student’s ability to write concisely will always trump filling a page with unnecessary text.
It’s not uncommon for beginning writers to repeat themselves. But such repetition bogs down the writing and makes the reader work too hard. Here are two ways to eliminate redundancy:
- Add concrete details, facts, or examples instead of rehashing the same point.
- Slash unnecessary words and phrases. Remember: when two words will do the trick, why use a dozen? Encourage your student to read each sentence and paragraph to see if he can cut out any words. His point will be clearer, stronger, and easier to identify.
Encourage your kids to try some of these tips for writing concisely. They may be amazed to discover how sharp and crisp their writing can be!