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Precision and Concision

Precision and Concision

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson teaches the meaning and value of being precise and concise when writing and editing.

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? We'll be learning about how to make sure our writing is both precise and concise. When writing, writers of genres, but especially of academic essays, will only get the most out of their ideas if the sentences they use to convey them are both precise and concise.

Precise means choosing words and phrases that best represent what the writer wants to say. And concise means putting together words as simply and directly as possible for maximum clarity. Together these two ideals of prose writing will make sure our ideas, points, and claims are delivered with maximum effectiveness and efficiency.

First let's focus on precision. There are several elements that go into using words and phrases precisely. First we need to choose the best word rather than scattering in similar words that aren't as accurate just to be fancy or to use variety. Basically, we need to avoid abusing the thesaurus. As a general rule, the only justification for using a fancy or jargon word instead of a simpler or more commonplace one is when a simpler word would not work as well or it would obscure the meaning of the sentence.

If, for example, I told you that my father has a hunting dog, for many purposes that would be enough detail. Sometimes, however, it would be important for me to distinguish whether his dog was a flusher, like bird hunters going after turkeys or pheasants would want or a hound, who are useful for tracking bigger game across country. Since each of these kinds of hunting are different, for some writing purposes, the lack of precision could be a critical error. But for other purposes, hunting dog would do just fine.

We should also strive to be specific by using vibrant nouns and verbs so we don't need to use additional adjectives to describe the nouns. For example, instead of "girl," say ballerina, toddler, or model, depending on what kind of girl you mean. This is particularly important for figurative and descriptive language which rely on the readers filling in the gaps between words with their imaginations and so accurate details are critical.

We should also make sure we use simple language. Here, I think George Orwell said it best, "never use a long word when a short one will do." The principle here is to strive to use the simplest, clearest, most understandable words and phrases that will still achieve your writing's purpose. Let's look at a couple examples of this. Here's one version of a paragraph I wrote in an essay about raising cattle.

"It's a cowardly relationship that we have with our food animals. We care for them, we raise them to be big and fat and healthy, and then we kill them before they can start to get too tough, or strong, or smart. We kill and eat them as soon as we can get away with it, hopefully before they cause us too much trouble. We don't let them develop any bad habits, or if they do, we get rid of them before they can teach it to others. And if one gets injured, we'll get rid of it, too, because now it won't grow quickly enough."

This paragraph is OK. But it is a bit vague, isn't it? Especially at the end. It could use some precise details. So now here's the version of the paragraph from the final draft. The changes come in at the last two sentences.

"When a young steer named Tri, half-brother to Tip and Steak, learns that he can push his way through the three-strand barbwire separating him from his mother, we reinforce the fence, and just for good measure we put Tri at the top of our To Eat list, so hopefully he won't live long enough to teach his brothers anything. When a calf breaks his leg we kill him, three months old and hundreds of pounds short of his ideal weight, because we know his growth will be stunted and we'd rather not feed him."

As you can see, I've added some detail. And in so doing, I've made it clear to my readers, I hope, what precisely I mean when I say at the beginning that it's a cowardly relationship we have with our food animals. Anyway, here's another paragraph that's having some problems with precision. This time taken from an old job application of mine.

"I'm currently employed at the state legislature, an appointment that will end in May, at the culmination of the 2009 legislative session. My primary responsibilities as a legislative aide include working with constituents, businesses and organizations concerned with the various bills and resolutions for which my legislator is responsible. One of the primary reasons for my success at this position is my ability to transition between professional, personal, and technical communication, both written and oral, as required by the constantly changing needs of the capitol."

As you can see, this paragraph is also full of unnecessarily big words, some of them jargon. Perhaps I felt it was important to show off my vocabulary on the application, but I could have done a much better job of just saying what I was trying to say if I focused on using shorter, clearer words. In case you're wondering, I didn't get the job. But here's a new version of the paragraph, which should make a little more sense and, who knows, might have done the better back then.

"I'm working for a representative in the state legislature, but my job is temporary and ends in May. I'm responsible for working with voters who call or email my boss with questions or complaints, and help representatives of businesses who are concerned with the bills and resolutions my boss oversees every year. Perhaps the biggest reason I can do this job well is that I'm good at flipping between being professional and being personal, since I have to alternate between the two every day at the capitol."

As you can see, just about every sentence here has been changed. For example, instead of saying "my responsibilities as a legislative aide include working with constituents, businesses, and organizations concerned with the various bills and resolutions," and on and on, I just wrote, "I'm responsible for working with voters who call or email my boss with questions or complaints, and I help representatives of businesses who are concerned with the various bills and resolutions." This isn't necessarily much shorter, but it is clearer.

And instead of writing that "the primary reasons for my success at this position is my ability to transition between professional, personal, and technical communication," I simply, and more precisely, said that "I'm good at flipping between being professional and being personal." Depending on your audience and your purpose in writing, these kinds of changes can be the difference between a reader understanding what you're saying and a reader misunderstanding, or even giving up on your text.

When we're talking about being concise, another way to say it is avoiding wordiness. Looking to cut out unnecessary or excess words or avoiding them entirely is a good general approach. But there are a few specific tactics that writers can use to achieve concision, including avoiding "to be" verbs. Things like "is," "am," "are," "were," "will be" and others, they're uninteresting when over used and they slow down a text's pace, often by forcing the writer to use more words than would have been necessary with more active verbs.

By avoiding the passive voice, writers can tighten and speed up their sentences. Another strategy is to remove or avoid unnecessary sentence openers, such as "there are" or "here is." We can also avoid words with similar or overlapping meanings, such as "cooperating together" or as I might have said here, repetitive redundancies.

And it's a good idea to avoid circumlocutions, phrases like, "it is the case that," "due to the fact that," or "during the course of." These phrases can be useful to control the pace of a text, but in general, since they don't add much of anything to a sentence, avoiding or cutting them out is a good idea. Now let's look at a couple paragraphs that are having trouble with concision and practice cutting them down to just what's needed to convey the same information. Here's the first one.

"During the course of my studies here at Rupplestilt University, I was consistently able to enroll in classes that, due to the fact that I was majoring in English at the time, did a lot to encourage me and instill in me a confidence that I might succeed. And although it is sadly the case that I have yet to complete my studies, I have learned over the past six years that there is nothing in this world that's worse than rushing what is sure to be a good thing upon completion."

As you can see, and as you no doubt heard, there are a lot of unnecessary words here. After all, what's this paragraph actually saying? Not very much. Here's the translation. "I've been a student of English here at Rupplestilt University for six years, and although I haven't graduated yet, I'm still learning, so I'm not in a rush." This is a pretty blatant example, but you might be surprised how often paragraphs like the bottom one show up in all kinds of contexts, which is sad considering how much easier it was to write a shorter, simpler, clearer translation.

Here's another example. "Though it must be acknowledged that the band most commonly known as Primus has gone through a significant number of drummers, especially when consideration is paid to their earliest, or formative years, the fact remains that their bassist and lead singer, nominally Les Claypool, and their guitarist, nominally Terry LaLonde, have been active members of the band for almost all of its existence. And Les Claypool, if truth be told, has been the central figure, as well as the only founding member to still remain an active member."

Here, too, we've got way more words than are needed to get the writer's point across. From unnecessary introductory phrases to completely useless terms to some phrases that could simply be trimmed down. There's a lot to work with here. Anyway, here's an improved version.

"Though it's true that they've had many drummers over the years, especially in the beginning, Primus's Les Claypool (bass and vocals) and Terry LaLonde (guitar) have been in the band for years. Claypool, the only remaining founding member, is the central figure of the band." As you can see, it's half the length and contains all the same points and ideas. If anything, it's saying a little bit more because those points and ideas are now showing through so much more effectively. And so the paragraph's overall purpose is also clearer.

This and our other examples today are good reasons to pay attention to the precision and concision of your own writing. And no matter what, I'm sure it's not as bad as some of these examples but still, the advantages of concise and precise language are too great not to try to achieve.

So what did we learn today? We learned about precision and concision, two ideals our writing should always try to adhere to. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.