Brevity – Say More with Less

Brevity in writing refers to a style of writing that is concise, terse, straight to the point, direct, and professional. Brevity is a highly prized style of writing in workplace contexts because it facilities clarity, which reduces wasted time and expensive litigation. Likewise, brevity is also prized in home and school settings: Readers, listeners, and users are in a hurry. They have a million distractions. This article defines brevity and summarizes strategies you can employ to make your writing more comprehensible, credible, and usable. Learn how to achieve brevity in your writing and the texts of others. Use brevity (along with flow, inclusiveness, simplicity and unity) to create a professional writing style or an academic writing style.

Image reads "Less is more." -- Robert Browning

Brevity Definition – Summary

Brevity in writing refers to a writer’s effort to say enough to convey an intended message using as few words as possible. Texts that illustrate brevity may be described as professional, concise, straight to the point, succinct, business-like, or direct.

Brevity isn’t just about succinctness. Your reader needs you to provide the concrete language, sensory language, metaphors, and specifics so they can visualize your message and correctly interpret it. In practice, brevity is less about stringency in word count and more about efficiency and precision in communication.

Achieving brevity is an artful, rhetorical process. In order to determine the gist of your message, you need to understand what your audience knows and feels about your topic.

Brevity can be likened to a master sculptor working with a block of marble. Just as the sculptor carefully chisels away superfluous stone to reveal the masterpiece within, a writer eliminates excess verbiage to reveal the core message. It’s not about curtailing complexity or detail, but refining and distilling the message to its essential form.

Synonyms

Texts that practice brevity may also be known as crisp, pithy, terse, curt, concise, straight to the point, direct, or succinct.

Related Concepts:


Why Does Brevity Matter?

Brevity bolsters reader engagement, comprehension, and memory recall. Dense and verbose text can muddle interpretation, compelling readers to exert more cognitive effort to decipher the message. By judiciously eliminating extraneous words and ideas, writers are able to achieve clarity and authority in writing.

Brevity is a highly prized style of writing in workplace contexts because it facilities clarity, which reduces wasted time and expensive litigation. Brevity is also prized in home and school settings: readers, listeners, and users are in a hurry, and they have a million distractions. In our contemporary information ecosystem, our senses are bombarded with more information than ever before:

  • 1.7MB of data is created every second by every person during 2020.
  • In the last two years alone, the astonishing 90% of the world’s data has been created.
  • 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are produced by humans every day.
  • 463 exabytes of data will be generated each day by humans as of 2025.
  • 95 million photos and videos are shared every day on Instagram.
  • By the end of 2020, 44 zettabytes will make up the entire digital universe.
  • Every day, 306.4 billion emails are sent, and 5 million Tweets are made” (Techjury).

So . . . what’s the bottom line?

If you want readers to make it to the end of your sentences, you’ve got to take a hard look at every word and strip away the deadwood.

Brevity from the Perspective of the Writer

From the writer’s perspective, brevity is about creating prose that respects the reader’s cognitive effort while delivering the message with maximal impact. Brevity involves the mindful crafting and chiseling of thoughts into a compact, precise form, without compromising the richness of the intended message. Brevity is less about curtailing the length of a piece and more about ensuring every word has earned its place in the text.

Brevity challenges the writer to be clear and direct, eliminating redundancy and avoiding verbosity. It propels them to prioritize the reader’s cognitive load, serving the information in digestible chunks rather than in an overwhelming cascade. Essentially, it’s a commitment to respect the reader’s time and attention while maximizing the potency of the conveyed message.

To achieve brevity, writers must engage in an iterative process of composing and revising. They scrutinize their work, question the necessity of each word and sentence, and make revisions that enhance clarity and precision. It’s a critical component of the composing process, requiring a deep understanding of the rhetorical situation — the audience, the context, the purpose of the message — and a willingness to rigorously refine the text to meet these requirements.

Thus, for writers, brevity isn’t just a stylistic choice. It’s an integral part of the writing process, a measure of their respect for their readers, and a testament to their skill in delivering powerful, clear, and effective communication.

Brevity from the Perspective of the Reader or User

For readers, listeners, and users in our information-saturated society, brevity is more than a stylistic preference; it’s a fundamental requirement for efficient comprehension and knowledge retention. Contemporary audiences face the onslaught of diverse information daily — from written reports and audio podcasts to digital interfaces and visual media. Facing this tsunami of data, audiences may perceive brevity to be a navigational tool, enabling them to extract the essence of a message efficiently.

Brevity in a text, a speech, or a user interface is akin to a compass in a complex terrain. It helps the audience avoid getting lost in extraneous details or entangled in verbose explanations. By keeping content succinct and focused, writers can place less cognitive strain on readers.

Moreover, brevity enhances audience engagement. A concise, well-structured piece respects the audience’s time and cognitive bandwidth, which in turn, fosters a positive and productive interaction. Be it a reader skimming a report, a listener tuning into a podcast, or a user navigating a digital platform, brevity ensures they are not overwhelmed by a sea of information but are offered a clear, streamlined path to understanding.

When your text is incredibly wordy, like this one, readers are likely to ignore it. In contrast — staying on the concept that more is less — this rewrite is more likely to obtain the desired result: “Clean up after your dog or face ticket and $1000 fine.” Photo Credit: “Fantastically wordy ‘pick up after your dog’ sign, Westminster, London, UK” by gruntzooki is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Guide to Brevity: How to Say More with Less

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

William Strunk, Jr., Professor of English, Cornell University, 1918,
The Elements of Style

To achieve brevity, when revising or editing, you need to discard unnecessary information. This requires an intellectual openness to information and an understanding of information literacy policies and perspectives. You need an empathetic sense of your audience’s knowledge of the topic in order to determine what can be discarded. Thus, achieving brevity requires rhetorical knowledge, rhetorical analysis, and rhetorical reasoning to reveal the essential core message.

You can accomplish brevity in your prose by adopting these strategies:

  1. Engage in Rhetorical Analysis
  2. Identify Redundancies
  3. Avoid Unnecessary Words
  4. Use the Active Voice
  5. Don’t Just Be. Do!
  6. Use Verbs Rather than Nominalizations
  7. Be Positive
  8. Eliminate Unnecessary Prepositions

1. Engage in Rhetorical Analysis

The first and foremost step to assess whether a text is wordy or concise should involve a rhetorical analysis. First, in order to identify clutter in your writing, you need to step outside of yourself: you need to revise your text from the perspective of your audience. For example, ask “How knowledgeable is my audience about this topic? What are their blind spots? Are they likely to respond to appeals to ethos, pathos, or logos?”

When we speak, we use voice inflection and hand gestures to convey our points, but we don’t have this luxury when we write. We have words, but words alone require more effort. Consider the word “dog.” For some, this word evokes, or calls to mind, your four-legged best friend; for others, the word may conjure images of that guy who never called. If the word dog makes up part of a sentence, we may be able to tell that the writer refers to an animal that barks—but there are still 5,000 different kinds of dogs, so which type of dog is it? After all, there is a big difference between a Chihuahua and a Pit Bull.

The words you select, your tone and diction, and the level of detail you need to deliver are all influenced by various factors in your rhetorical situationthe audience’s knowledge level and expectations, the context, the urgency of the problem (exigency), and the writer’s purpose or goal, among others.

  1. Ethos (credibility): Brevity can enhance your credibility as a writer. By expressing complex ideas in a concise manner, you demonstrate a deep understanding of your subject matter. This shows that you respect your audience’s time and cognitive load, enhancing your ethos or credibility.
  2. Pathos (emotional appeal): A brief, powerful statement can resonate more strongly with your audience than a long, convoluted explanation. For instance, memorable quotes or advertising slogans often rely on brevity for their emotional impact, thereby leveraging pathos.
  3. Logos (logical appeal): Brevity aids in the clear and logical presentation of your arguments. By cutting out unnecessary information, you can guide your audience more effectively through your reasoning process, improving the logical appeal or logos of your message.
  4. Kairos (timing and context): The concept of kairos in rhetoric refers to the right time and place for making an argument. In today’s fast-paced world, brevity can enhance the relevance of your message by meeting your audience’s expectation for quick, concise information.

So, as you assess your writing for wordiness, keep in mind that brevity isn’t just about shortening your sentences or cutting words. It’s about understanding your rhetorical situation and adjusting the specificity and detail of your content accordingly. The ultimate goal is to express your ideas effectively and powerfully, using the most efficient means possible.

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2. Identify Redundancies

Look for repetitive words or ideas. If the same point is made more than once without adding value, consider removing the repetition.

Sometimes writers strive for word counts rather than precision. Unfortunately, this rarely fools the reader.  While the impulse to write more seems reasonable, it often leads to repetitive, bland paragraphs. As you revise, look for words that restate sentiments. Here are some examples:

RepetitiveExplanation
Terrible tragedyTragedy implies terrible.
Large in sizeLarge indicates a size.
Actual factsActuality requires factuality.
Pink in colorPink is a color.
Completely wholeBeing whole entails completion.

3. Avoid Unnecessary Words

Remove filler words and phrases that don’t contribute to the meaning of the sentence. These can include words like “very,” “really,” and “actually,” among others.

Sometimes writers strive for word counts rather than precision. Unfortunately, this rarely fools the reader.  While the impulse to write more seems reasonable, it often leads to repetitive, bland paragraphs. As you revise, look for words that restate sentiments.

4. Use the Active Voice

“Active voice” refers to the relationship between the subject and the verb of a sentence.  In an active sentence, the subject carries out the action of the verb, i.e., “Joseph (subject) ate (verb) the burrito.” In passive sentences, however, the subject no longer acts but is acted upon by the verb: “The burrito was eaten (verb) by Joseph (subject)” or “The burrito was eaten” (if the subject is unknown).  Below are some more examples. Note that in these examples, the sentences become shorter and more specific because active writing forces the writer to be clearer and more assertive.

PassiveActive
The reason he left his job at the bank was because his health began to fail.He left his job at the bank because his health began to fail.
The balloon was blown up by me.I blew up the balloon.
The boat has been destroyed by a hurricane.A hurricane destroyed the boat.
The dragon has been killed by the heroine.The heroine killed the dragon.

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5. Don’t Just Be. Do!

In our daily speech and in rough drafts, we tend to rely heavily on the various forms of the verb to be.

The verb to be is unlike any other verb because it is inert–that is, it doesn’t show any action. For example, in the sentence “The researcher is a professor at Duke” the verb is merely connects the subject with what grammarians call the subject complement. We could just as easily say “The professor at Duke is a researcher” without changing the meaning of the sentence.

It would be nearly impossible to draft documents without some linking verbs. Because you diminish the vigor of a document by using an excessive number of is and are constructions, you should try to limit their frequency. Finally, note that the progressive form of a linking verb—which involves using to be as an auxiliary verb with a participle–is much more acceptable. The advantage of the progressive form is that it illustrates action progressing over time, enabling us to shape concise sentences that indicate something is currently happening: “The coauthors are disagreeing about the order in which their names should be listed when the book is published.”

It is and there are constructions often lead to sluggish, passive sentences, so you should limit their frequency, as illustrated below.

Sample: While it is crucial for us to speak out on behalf of education, it is important that we do so in a manner consistent with statute and administrative rules.

Revision: We need to speak out on behalf of education while observing statute and administrative rules.

Sample: According to the certification theory, there is no intrinsic relation between creativity and IQ.

Revision: Certification theory posits no intrinsic relation between creativity and IQ.

However, some it is and there are constructions allow you to be more succinct and avoid repetition of a subject rather than placing the true subject at the beginning of the sentence, so you should not attempt to eliminate all such constructions.

The overuse of “to be” verbs can weaken the effect of your writing. Remember that because verbs indicate the action and energy of your sentences, they are very important.  Active verbs add flavor to our sentences. When we rely too much on “to be” verbs, our writing becomes wordy and boring.  Including active verbs shortens the sentences and makes them easier to understand.

Overuse of “To Be”Active Verbs
One difference between watching television and reading is that reading is an activity
that is dependent upon more participation while watching television is a more passive
activity.
Reading differs from watching television because reading requires active
participation while watching television allows the viewer to sit back and relax.
I am about to be fired.My boss will soon fire me.
If you are okay with this proposition, let me know.If you accept this proposition, let me know.
People are always saying that I am an intellectually gifted person.People often praise me for my intellectual giftedness.

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6. Use Verbs Rather than Nominalizations

You can imbue your language with a sense of vigor by eliminating unnecessary nouns and choosing powerful verbs. When editing, consider changing Latinated nouns–that is, nouns that end with -ance, -ing, -ion, -tion, or -ment into verbs.

For example, transform introduction into introduce; commitment, commit; feeling, feel. Changing nouns into verbs can result in a more concise and vigorous passage, as illustrated below:

Example: The assumption that creative ability has a relationship to intelligence warrants further examination.

Revision: We must examine how creative ability relates to intelligence.

Example: This introduction is a rough conception of the assumptions about the decision-making process underlying the conception: Decisions about belief or action generally occur in the context of some problem and have some basis.

Revision: We can assume that decisions occur in response to problems

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7. Be Positive

To facilitate succinctness and clarity, avoid negatives and double negatives.

Example: “She did not think that studying algebra was a valuable way to spend the morning.”

Revision: “She thought studying algebra was a waste of the morning.” 

In the revised version, it is clear what she thinks about studying: it wasted the morning.  In general, avoid using the word not when another word can replace it.

Negative FormPositive Form
Not interestingBoring
Not honestDishonest
Not importantTrifling
Not paying attentionIgnoring
Not bigSmall
Not knownUnknown

8. Eliminate Unnecessary Prepositions

When used in moderation, prepositions are invaluable: they work as connecting words, linking the object of the preposition to a word that appears earlier in the sentence. Like linking verbs, however, prepositions do not convey action, nor do they subordinate one thought to another. Instead, they merely link chunks of meaning that readers must gather together in order to understand the sentence.

When used excessively, as demonstrated by the following example, prepositional phrases create a choppy, list-like style:

Example of Wordiness: The major objective of this study was to determine the perceived effects of the union on monetary and on non-monetary aspects of compensation over the period in which respondents to the survey had been union members.

Revision: This study examines how the union affects monetary and non-monetary aspects of compensation.

Use Slashes to Separate Prepositional Phrases

To help identify and eliminate prepositions, isolate them by putting slashes between prepositional phrases and other basic sentence parts as illustrated here:

  • /Furthermore,/ /in response/ /to the increased pressure/ /to publish/ /in academia/ /the past decade/ /and the growing complexity/ /of the academic areas and research tools/, /one should expect/ /to find/ /increased emphasis/ /on cost-cutting techniques/ //by academic writers/. /An increase/ /in cost/ /can probably be observed/ /by investigating/ /the changing trends/ /in the multiple authorship/ /of articles/ /over time./

FAQs

How is brevity a rhetorical construct?

Brevity, as a rhetorical construct, plays a vital role in shaping the effectiveness and impact of communication:

  1. Ethos (credibility): Brevity contributes to ethos by demonstrating the communicator’s respect for their audience’s time and cognitive load. An ability to express complex ideas succinctly often implies a deep understanding of the subject matter, thereby enhancing the communicator’s credibility.
  2. Pathos (emotional appeal): Brevity can amplify the emotional impact of a message. A short, potent statement can often resonate more powerfully with the audience than a verbose explanation. Think of memorable quotes or advertising slogans; their brevity contributes significantly to their emotional appeal.
  3. Logos (logical appeal): Brevity promotes clarity and aids in the logical flow of arguments. By eliminating extraneous information, the communicator can more effectively guide the audience through their reasoning process, making it easier for the audience to follow and accept the argument.
  4. Kairos (timing and context): In rhetoric, kairos refers to the opportune time and place to make an argument. Brevity is especially valuable in today’s fast-paced world, where audiences often prefer concise, to-the-point information. The ability to convey a message succinctly can capture the audience’s attention and meet their contextual expectations.

Thus, brevity is not just a writing style or technique, but a fundamental component of rhetorical strategy. It shapes how messages are crafted, perceived, and interpreted, playing a critical role in effective communication.

Elements of Style

Brevity — along with simplicity and flow, coherence, unity — is one of the core elements of style that is required to communicate with clarity in home, school, and workplace contexts.

Additional Resources

References

King, S. (2002). On writing: A memoir of the craft. Pocket Books.

Strunk, W, Jr., & White, E. B. (2002). The elements of style (4th ed.). Allyn & Bacon.

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