Avoiding Wordiness: Writing Skills Success Study Guide

Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Exercises for this concept can be found at Avoiding Wordiness: Writing Skills Success Practice Exercises.

A special kind of beauty exists which is born in language, of language, and for language.

—Gaston Bachelard, French philosopher (1884–1962)

Lesson Summary

What does writing have to do with diction? Diction often refers to speaking components, such as intonation, inflection, and enunciation, but it also encompasses word choice and style. Effective language means concise, precise writing.

A word is a terrible thing to waste. Or is it better to say, "It is a terrible thing to waste a word"? The difference between these two versions is a matter of diction, using appropriate words and combining them in the right way to communicate your message accurately. This lesson discusses ways to avoid some of the most common diction traps: wordiness, lack of precison, clichés, and jargon. Learning to recognize and avoid such writing weaknesses will turn a mediocre writer into a good one—this means expressing ideas in the best and clearest possible way.


Excess words in communication waste space and time. Not only that, but they may also distort the message or make it difficult for the reader to understand. Get in the habit of streamlining your writing, making the sentences as concise as possible. If you use five words where three would do, delete the extra words or structure your sentences to avoid them. See if you can rewrite the sentences in the first column to make them less wordy. Check yourself against the version in the second column.

The additional words in the first column add no information. All they do is take up space.


Buzzwords and Fluffy Modifiers

Buzzwords—such as aspect, element, factor, scope, situation, type, kind, forms, and so on— sound important, but add no meaning to a sentence. They often signal a writer who has little or nothing to say, yet wishes to sound important. Likewise, modifiers such as absolutely, definitely, really, very, important, significant, current, major, and quite may add length to a sentence, but they seldom add meaning.

      The nature of the scheduling system is a very important matter that can definitely have a really significant impact on the morale aspect of an employee's attitude. Aspects of our current scheduling policy make it absolutely necessary that we undergo a significant change.
      The scheduling system can affect employee morale. Our policy needs to be changed.
      The following table lists a host of phrases that can be reduced to one or two words.


Passive Voice

Some wordiness is caused by using passive voice verbs when you could use the active voice. (See Lesson 11 if you don't remember passive voice.)



Those passive sentences suffer not only from passive voice wordiness, but also from the writer's attempt to make the writing sound intellectual, to make the message more difficult than necessary. Writers make this error in many ways. One way is to turn adjectives and verbs into nouns. This transformation usually means extra words are added to the sentence.


Another way writers add words without adding meaning is to use a pretentious tone. What follows is an actual memo issued by a bureaucrat during World War II. When it was sent to President Franklin Roosevelt for his approval, he edited the memo before sending it on.

      Original pretentious memo:
      In the unlikely event of an attack by an invader of a foreign nature, such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.
      Roosevelt's revised memo:
      If there is an air raid, put something across the windows and turn off the lights outside in buildings where we have to keep the work going.

Here's another example of pretentious writing, along with a clearer, revised version.

      Pompous memo:
      As per the most recent directive issued from this office, it is incumbent upon all employees and they are henceforth instructed to reduce in amount the paper used in the accomplishment of their daily tasks due to the marked increase in the cost of such supplies.
      Since paper costs have increased, employees must use less paper.

Word Economy

Writers sometimes stretch their sentences with unnecessary words, all to sound intelligent. The previous table illustrates stretched sentences that have been rewritten more concisely.

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