Strategies for Writing Concise Descriptions


Concise writing is clear writing. By definition, concise writing communicates in as few words as necessary. Everything in a sentence other than the subject, verb, and object is description. Descriptions cause most of the “fluff” in sentences, but, fortunately, some simple strategies will help you write concise descriptions.

Simplifying ownership

You can show ownership in two ways, with a possessive or a prepositional phrase. Prepositional phrases always make writing less concise. Using possessives, such as the apostrophe-S, will make writing more concise.

Example 1.a, prepositional phrase: The purpose of the CEO is to create an environment for efficiency. (12 words)
Example 1.b, possessive: The CEO’s purpose is to create an environment for efficiency. (10 words)

In example 1, revising the prepositional phrase reduces the sentence’s word count by 2 words. This might not seem significant, but it is. First, if you do this multiple times in a document, the overall effect is more concise writing. You will have removed many unnecessary words. Second, the writing will be stronger overall because you will have removed the weak prepositional phrases.

I only endorse prepositional phrases for ownership when the “owner” is a phrase of 3 or more words. With the possessive, the sentence may be confusing or awkward because the sentence has multiple descriptive words before naming the thing being described. Each case needs to be considered carefully. In example 2, the sentence with the prepositional phrase may be better than sentence with the possessive.

Example 2.a, prepositional phrase: The design of the ergonomic latex foam chair compensates for spine curvature.
Example 2.b, possessive: The ergonomic latex foam chair’s design compensates for spine curvature.

However, when you have multiple owners, possessives are generally better. Example 3 demonstrates this concept with mutual owners, and example 4 demonstrates this concept with separate owners.

Example 3.a, prepositional phrase: The agreement between the owner and the buyer resolved the confusion. (11 words)
Example 3.b, possessive: The owner and buyer’s agreement resolved the confusion. (8 words)

Example 4.a, prepositional phrase: The offices of the president and vice-president display the constitution. (11 words)
Example 4.b, possessive: The president’s and vice-president’s offices display the constitution. (9 words) 

Simplifying adverbial phrases

Adverbial phrases describe how an action is performed. They answer the question “How” in regards to the verb (e.g., Ran how? Worked how?). You may be able to replace the phrase with one or two words without changing the meaning. Although I generally don’t recommend using adverbs, a single adverb is far superior to an adverbial phrase, as seen in example 5.

Example 5: Wrote in a manner that used few words to convey the message = Wrote succinctly

In fact, this is one of the few cases in which I recommend using adverbs. Use this strategy only when you can’t find a verb that explicitly describes the action and doesn’t require a modifying adverb or adverbial phrase. If you can find an accurate verb that doesn’t require modifiers, use it, as seen in Example 6.

Example 6: Drove at a high rate of speed = Drove fast = Sped

Other examples of this technique:

  • walked a few steps at a time = walked hesitantly
  • administered the survey as the initial step of the process = first administered the survey
  • removed the gray matter in a careful manner = removed the gray matter carefully

 Simplifying adjectival phrases

Adjectival phrases describe what something is. Following the concept that using fewer words is better, concise writers reduce adjectival phrases to single words when possible. This is particularly important when a sentence has 2 or more phrases in a series. Consider example 7.a.

Example 7.a: The finances of a hospital that provides free healthcare services to needy families and other financially challenged persons without insurance to cover the cost for services will always fluctuate. (29 words)

This sentence is a mess. The basic sentence is “The finances will fluctuate.” Everything else is description and is fair game for revision. The entire phrase “that provides free healthcare . . . cover the cost for services” describes “hospital.” A name for such a hospital is “charity hospital.” Now we have this:

Example 7.b: The finances of a charity hospital will always fluctuate. (9 words)

We might try “A charity hospital’s finances will always fluctuate,” but that sounds awkward to my ear. This revision may be more drastic than necessary, but the sentence has other opportunities for cutting down the description. “Free healthcare services” can become “free services” because “healthcare” is implied—it’s a hospital. A single word for “financially challenged” is “poor,” and a single word for “without the insurance to cover the cost for services” is “under-insured.

Identify the adjectival phrases in a sentence and determine whether you can eliminate them or, at least, reduce them to single words. 

Reducing multi-layer descriptions

You described something in your sentence, but some part of that description may be unclear. So you described something in your first description. Now, you have a description of the description. This is a problem for conciseness because the second description doesn’t add value to main message. After the initial description, the new descriptions are off topic, distracting the reader from the point you wish to make. We see this problem in example 8.a.

Example 8.a, multi-layer description: The data collected by researchers from the university best known for education programs, according to Educ. Weekly, show that teachers prevent abuse.

Example 8.a has 4 layers of description, which is 3 layers too many.

  • Initial word: “data”
  • Layer 1: “collected by researchers” describes “data”
  • Layer 2: “from the university describes researchers”
  • Layer 3: “best known for education programs” describes “university”
  • Layer 4: “according to Educ. Weekly” describes “known”

The strategy for reducing layers of description has 2 steps.

1. Determine whether all the descriptions are relevant. For example, in example 8.a, the university’s reputation may not be related to the data findings. Certainly, the journal name is not relevant here.

2. Move the description in layers 2+ to another sentence. If we decide that the reader needs to know about the university’s programs, we can move that information to another sentence. It is off-topic here.

These 2 steps can lead to multiple revisions, including the following.

Example 8.b, single-layer description: Researchers from Blahblah University collected data on child abuse and found that teachers prevent abuse. According to Educ. Weekly, the university is best known for its education programs.

Overall, the point is this: Find the simplest way to provide descriptions without adding any unnecessary words. With concise writing, you provide the information the reader needs, help the reader understand your message, and keep the reader interested.

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