The nemesis of my academic world is the page limit. I’ve spent hours rereading papers, painfully deleting one word at a time, cursing the stringent requirements of academia. “Conciseness is a sign of sophistication,” my professors would say. But how would they understand my ideas if they weren’t fully explained?
After many years of ineffective protestations, I stumbled upon a reason for concise writing that suggested my lengthy explanations were actually having the opposite effect:
Professional writer Peter Elbow (1973) explains that conciseness empowers ideas. Essentially, Elbow argues that wordiness is a defense mechanism used to hide what you’re saying because you’re afraid of being heard. Ouch. Way to call out my deepest insecurities, Peter!
Ignoring the ruthless attack on my self-esteem (just kidding, Peter, I forgive you), I decided to test this theory. The findings confirmed my fears: every word I eliminated strengthened the remaining words. I like to think of the Charmin Ultra commercial (“Less is More”).
With fewer words to muddle the meaning behind my sentences, my ideas became clearer. This doesn’t mean all writing needs to be the “bear necessities”; that would be awfully boring. I learned that it’s more about how each word serves a purpose for the paper as a whole, or adds something new and unique to it (Guptill, 2016).
For me, revising for conciseness usually means deleting or rewriting entire sections of papers. I’m forced to really think about what I’m trying to say, which has made my writing more focused and intentional.
Even Stephen King (2000) said the best advice he ever received was to take his first draft and get rid of 10% of it. And if King said it, then it must be true.
Elbow, P. (1973). Writing Without Teachers (pp. 12-75). Oxford University Press.
Guptill, A. (2016). Writing in College. Open SUNY.
King, S. (2000). On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner.