Concise language maximizes the effectiveness and readability of your writing. In this series, I present 4 handy tips for eliminating wordiness: avoid redundancy, remove embellishments, condense long phrases, and use active voice. In each post, I describe a rule, provide some examples of how to apply it in order to make your writing more concise, and (crucially) explain when it does not apply. This post is Part 2: Remove Embellishments.
If you haven't already, I'd encourage you to also read Part 1 (Avoid Redundancy).
If a word exists only to make your writing sound more intelligent or fanciful—in other words, if it does not actually add meaning—the text is better off without it.
Consider the following sentence. It is entirely grammatical, but it lacks in focus because it is full of embellished language. How should it be shortened?
Importantly, it is my opinion that any specific person can definitely try to avoid bankruptcy by using a number of methods to kind of track their finances.
We'll return to this sentence below. First, let's discuss the most common types of embellishments. Most of these examples can just be removed entirely; if words are underlined, then only those words should be removed:
Introductory words and phrases: Interestingly, Importantly, Fortunately, Regrettably, In terms of ..., The truth is that ..., In fact, and so on (the body of the sentence should itself indicate that its meaning is interesting, regrettable, true, etc.)
Statements of opinion: I think that, I believe that, In my opinion, and so on (the context should already indicate that the sentence is an opinion)
Excessive defining adjectives: a particular task, a certain goal, a specific person, and so on
Excessive strengthening or weakening adverbs: really, very, quite, somewhat, basically, really, definitely, actually, and so on
Long verb phrases: should seek to ..., will attempt to ..., has a need to (instead say needs to), is going to (instead say will), and so on
Imprecise approximations: quite a lot, practically all, countless, a fair amount of, a number of, and so on (be as precise as possible instead)
Colloquialisms: It goes without saying, For all intents and purposes, At the end of the day, the fact that, kind of, sort of, and so on
Now, let's return to our sentence and remove all the embellishments:
Importantly: This word does not add meaning, as the sentence already makes clear that the issue is important. When using such words and phrases to start a sentence, ask yourself whether they actually add to the sentence. If not, remove them. Category: "Introductory words and phrases"
it is my opinion that: Similarly, we can tell from the sentence's phrasing that this is an opinion, so we can safely remove this phrase. Statements of opinion are almost never necessary because the context already communicates that information. Category: "Statements of opinion"
any specific person: This phrase—particularly the adjective "specific"—is longer than it needs to be. Just say "anyone." Category: "Excessive defining adjectives"
definitely: This word can sometimes add meaning when used to indicate a contrast (see below), but in this case, it does not help. Category: "Excessive strengthening or weakening adverbs"
try to avoid: This verb phrase is longer than it needs to be, and it is arguably imprecise as well (as the writer presumably means that the people can actually avoid bankruptcy, not just "try to" do so). Category: "Long verb phrases"
a number of: A good rule for formal writing is to always be as precise as possible when referring to quantities. In particular, flowery phrases such as this one often only confuse the reader. How many is "a number of"? It could be almost literally any amount! A narrower term such as "several" is better, but the best choice is to be as specific as possible. If the actual number is not known, use a close-ended range (e.g., "three to five") or a specific estimate (e.g., "approximately 100"). Category: "Imprecise approximations"
kind of: Phrases such as this one are common in everyday speech, but they do not add meaning and thus should be avoided in formal writing. Category: "Colloquialisms"
Here is the final sentence:
Anyone can avoid bankruptcy by using three methods to track their finances.
That is only 13 words—down from 27 words in the original; it is much clearer and easier to read as well. Most sentences you write won't be quite as wordy as our original, but this example proves that a focus on removing embellishments can noticeably improve a text.
The advice given above is targeted toward writers in the academic, journalistic, and professional contexts, where fanciful additions serve only to distract from the meaning of the text. If you are writing outside of those contexts, you can largely ignore this post's advice, but you should still try to limit wordiness in other ways (for instance, by avoiding redundancy).
The most obvious exception is creative writing, in which embellishments can certainly provide added value. In general, if your purpose is to entertain (rather than to inform or to convince), then embellishments can be very helpful, though they should still be used with purpose and thoughtfulness. Even in a novel or poem, embellishments can be excessive, so be mindful of your use of such phrases; a few flourishes can help engage readers, but too many will bog down your text and thus have the opposite effect.
In addition, please note that some of the terms listed above are not always embellishments. For instance, the use of "actually" in this sentence provides emphasis that would be lost if it were to be removed:
The number one cause of death among teens is actually suicide.
Here, "actually" conveys a sense of surprise that is not in the rest of the sentence, so it is not an embellishment and can be left in. Similarly, some of the listed adjectives, adverbs, and verbs can be used to appropriately convey contrast or degree:
Andrew was not just annoyed but extremely angry at the proposed changes to the neighborhood charter.
The transportation bill renames Route 4 as Linden Avenue; more importantly, it provides funding for long-awaited road repairs.
Be careful when using such terms, however. I'd recommend always removing these words to see if the sentence has the same meaning; if the meaning changes, you can always put the words back in.
You can also sometimes use a colloquialism in a literal sense; still, I'd recommend rephrasing so as to prevent confusion:
At the end of the day, Miranda's feet hurt from standing for so long in high heels. (okay)
Miranda's feet hurt from standing all day in high heels. (better)
A Special Note On "In Order To" and "So As To"
Finally, let's discuss two common phrases that editors often label as wordy: "in order to" and "so as to." These phrases can often be abbreviated as simply "to," but in many sentences, the full phrase is necessary to ensure readability and prevent confusion. For instance, if there is a previous use of the word "to" in the sentence, preserving "in order to" or "so as to" prevents confusion:
Gary gave his cousin step-by-step directions from the highway to the restaurant in order to help her avoid traffic.
If we remove "in order" from the sentence, the phrasing "from the highway to the restaurant to..." would lead the reader to expect that the following text is a third location, which is not the case. Keeping the full phrase thus ensures the statement's clarity. However, if "In order to" or "So as to" begins a sentence, or if there is no previous use of "to" in the sentence, it is usually best to abbreviate those phrases as simply "to":
In order to reward her students, Professor Kim let them go to lunch 10 minutes early.
The amphitheater's landscaping is arranged specifically so as to optimize sound quality.
In these cases, the sentences are clear without the added words, so we should remove them:
To reward her students, Professor Kim let them go to lunch 10 minutes early.
The amphitheater's landscaping is arranged specifically to optimize sound quality.
If you are unsure, I'd recommend using the full phrase, as it is better for your text to be clear and slightly wordy than for it to be concise but confusing. Indeed, always prioritize clarity over conciseness; both are important, but you cannot accomplish your goal if your readers cannot understand what you write!
I hope that this post helps to improve your writing's focus and conciseness. If you have any comments or questions, please let me know. Thanks for reading!