Tag Archives: style

What is Concision in Writing?

The other day CM and I were catching up. We hadn’t chatted in months. He’s been working on his yard. Landscaping. The big project was a picket fence. I betcha it looks good. As assiduous readers will recall from prior posts, I’ve started the rewriting and editing process. I shared with him the good news that the first draft of the book was complete and that the goal was to get the book down from 210 pages to 150 or less. ‘The writing has to be concise’, I said, parroting what the style guides were saying. Concision is everything. But then CM asked, ‘What exactly is concision in writing?’. Well, I hadn’t actually thought of that! Concise is to say as much as possible in as few words as possible. But what is ‘as much as possible’? How does one know? Is there a boundary between too little and too much?

How to Express Concision

Communication is a two way street. When attempting to get ideas across, it’s always helpful to remember how the other person is looking at things. It just so happens that me and CM share a construction background. In fact, years ago, when I was thinking of getting into the trades, I asked CM which trade I should get into. He said if he were doing it all again, he’d check out either electrical or plumbing: they’re paid well and you’re not outside working in the rain or on top of a slippery roof.

So, when asked ‘What exactly is concision in writing?’, I came up with the following: concision is like what you find on a blueprint. Tradespeople read blueprints when they build a house. The print tells them where the stairs go, the rise and the run of the treads, how many levels the house has. It tells them how to lay out the walls, where the bathrooms are, and how many bedrooms there are. It does not tell them where to hang the Monet, where to put the TV, or which pan goes into which cupboard.

The plan tells the tradespeople what they need to know to build the house. And in very exact terms: the shear wall will be screwed together with certain types of screws. The length and type of plating of exterior screws will be specified. But it does not go beyond what it is designed to do: it will not talk about where the TV goes, for example. This is concision: the state of expressing as efficiently as possible what needs to be said.

How Concision Works

If a set of blueprints for a house can be described as being ‘concise’, concision works because there is an understanding between the architect who drafts the blueprints and the tradespeople who interpret the blueprints. Through experience, the architect knows what to put on the blueprints and what not to put on. And through experience, the tradespeople know what to look for. A book then, must be like a set of blueprints: it must start off with a well defined goal. Just as the point of a blueprint is so a house can be built, the writer must define the purpose of the book.

To continue the analogy, once the writer defines the purpose of a book, the next thing to establish is the book’s audience. Just as an architect is making a set of blueprints for tradespeople, the writer must figure out who the audience is. That way, the right amount of information is conveyed. Once the architect defines the audience as an audience of tradespeople, certain things can be said which do not need further elaboration. For instance, if acoustic insulation is specified, it can be presumed that the tradespeople are familiar with how to install it: no need to give a lesson on the history and application of acoustic insulation. For the same reason, if a writer is writing about theatre to an audience of theatregoers, there is no need to give the background of each play under discussion: it can be presumed the audience is already familiar. There is no need, for example, to say that Macbeth is a play by Shakespeare in which an ambitious vassal assassinates his lord. That information would be superfluous. To include it would not be concise.

The Current State of Paying Melpomene’s Price

Now that the process of rewriting and editing the book has started, how does it look? To use the blueprint analogy, currently the book is like a glorious house built in the clouds. It has no foundation. Some of the stairs lead nowhere. Others are in the wrong place. It needs concision.

But even in this bad state, one can tell that the house has an interesting design. With the proper corrections, one could live in there. And comfortably. The crucial thing I can see right now is that what I have created is not yet a house, but, can become a house with the proper revisions. And that for now is good enough. Actually, in a way, I’m counting my lucky stars because I’ve started off a lot of projects where, looking back on them, they’re not even salvageable.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work many times over.

Editing & Style

Since the first draft is complete, it’s time to start rewriting and editing. The manuscript is at 126 Microsoft Word pages which is equal to about 210 softcover book pages (depending on size, font, etc.,). I’ve started rewriting the preface. The goal with the preface is to shorten it 20% and it looks like I might be able to exceed that. I’ve also started to put in the appropriate footnotes. And then it struck me: I can’t remember all the formats! It’s been eight years since I’ve done this sort of stuff. Same for editing. I haven’t edited anything in these last eight years either. Rusty. Of course, the goal is to get professional editors to go through everything. But the goal also is to get it to the very best of my ability before getting outside help. Junk in, junk out, as they say. And if you’re wondering, no, my ‘academic’ writing isn’t the same as my ‘blogging’ writing. Too bad. Because my ‘blogging’ writing actually has some good things going for it. It’s short. It’s fairly concise. It’s readily understandable. At least that’s what Yoast SEO reports: ‘The copy scores 70 on the Flesch Reading Ease test which is considered easy to read’. I’m pretty sure if I fed my manuscript into WordPress Yoast SEO it would yell at me for making things too difficult to read. Time to change that. I think I might try too hard to appear clever in my academic writing. This is where having a blog sorta helps me out.

Off to the Library to Find Editing Books

So, at the library I found four interesting volumes. And on the bookshelf at home, there was a good old standby. Here’s the library picks:

Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. I’ve never read this before. But everyone swears by it. It’s the only book to appear on every top 10 list. And it’s short. Actually, all these style guides are short. Maybe that’s some sort of hint to would-be writers. Some famous writers read this volume yearly. Wow. Here’s the back blurb:

Making ‘every word tell’ is what The Elements of Style is all about. This famous manual, now in a fourth edition, has conveyed the principles of plain English style to millions of readers. It is probably the only style manual ever to appear on the best seller lists.

Whether you write letters, term papers, or novels, the ‘little’ book, as it has come to be called, can help you communicate more effectively. It will show you how to cut deadwood out of your sentences; enliven your prose with the active voice; put statements in a positive for; approach style by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, simplicity.

The original ‘little’ book was written by William Strunk, Jr., late professor of English at Cornell, for use by his students. Years later, one of the most illustrious of those students, E.B. White, prepared an edition of the book for the general public, revising the original and contributing a chapter of his own that sought to lead the reader beyond mere correctness toward distinction in English style.

I like it. The goal of writing is to ‘communicate’ with readers. Put this way, I’m beginning to understand why simplicity and concision are desirable: it’s just like talking with people. Who appreciates a conversation when someone is hammering them over their head with huge words and sentences which never end?

Number two is the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. I used to have the 5th ed. Now it’s up to the 7th ed.! This volume has all the goods on the format footnotes go in, how to do abbreviations, and so on. Maybe it will even tell me how to differentiate between ‘which’ and ‘that’: that’s something I’ve forgotten how to do! Here’s the back blurb:

The MLA Handbook is published by the Modern Language Association, the authority on MLA documentation style. Widely adopted by universities, colleges, and secondary schools, the MLA Handbook gives step-by-step advice on every aspect of writing research papers, from selecting a topic to submitting the completed paper.

The seventh edition is a comprehensive, up-to-date guide to research and writing in the online environment. It provides an authoritative account of MLA documentation style for use in student writing, including simplified guidelines for citing works published on the Web and new recommendations for citing several kinds of works, such as digital files and graphic narratives.

Number three is The Canadian Writer’s Handbook. Here’s its blurb:

For over twenty-five years, The Canadian Writer’s Handbook has provided invaluable guidance on all aspects of the writing process, from the mechanics of building effective sentences and paragraphs to the intricacies of writing, formatting, and documenting full-length research papers. Building on the foundations laid by William Messenger and Jan de Bruyn, Judy Brown and Ramona Montagnes, both of the respected UBC Writing Centre, have updated this comprehensive and authoritative text.

This volume has MLA, APA, Chicago, and CSE style guides for citing references. I can compare it with the MLA Handbook to come up with a style appropriate for my book.

Last there is my own dog eared copy of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams. Here’s what its back blurb has to say:

This acclaimed book is a master teacher’s tested program for turning clumsy prose into clear, powerful, effective writing. A logical, expert, easy-to-use plan for achieving excellence in expression, Style offers neither simplistic rules nor endless lists of dos and don’ts. Rather, Joseph Williams and Gregory Colomb explain how to be concise, how to be focused, how to be organized.

Filled with realistic examples of good, bad, and better writing, and step-by-step strategies for crafting a sentence or organizing a paragraph, Style does much more than teach mechanics: it helps anyone who must write clearly and persuasively transform even the roughest of drafts into a polished work of clarity, coherence, impact, and personality.

Wow! I am SOLD! And, believe it or not, I find books on style actually quite entertaining to read.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I am editing and re-Doing Melpomene’s Work.