By Charis Nixon
For much of our academic journey, we’re taught to elaborate in our writing. High school writing assignments usually included essays with high word counts, and in return, students learned to pack their sentences with complex or unnecessary words. Over the years, I mastered the ability to state a simple idea using as many words as possible. However, as a freshman journalism major, I soon had to reconsider everything I knew about writing. Here are some tips I’ve learned to make my writing more concise.
Write in active voice.
A fundamental concept of journalistic writing is to position the most important information first. I’ve found that active voice is often the most effective way to achieve this goal.
Every sentence contains a subject and a predicate: the subject is the main person or entity that performs an action, and the predicate indicates the action (i.e. the verb). Sometimes, the predicate also contains an object, which is the person or entity that receives the action.
In active voice, the subject does something to the object, whereas in passive voice, the object has something done to them by the subject.
Active: Reno Police Department caught the suspect.
Passive: The suspect was caught by Reno Police Department.
Here, the active sentence is more concise, which has the added advantage of engaging the reader because it gets to the directly to the action.
However, active voice isn’t always most appropriate, nor is it always more concise than passive voice. For example, if an unknown person robbed a store, it’d be logical to omit the subject using passive voice.
Active: An unknown person robbed the store early this morning.
Passive: The store was robbed early this morning.
In this case, passive voice is more concise and presents the information in a more logical order. If the journalist’s goal is to inform the public of a store robbery, then that information is more important than the fact that the suspect is unknown. Secondary information such as the unknown robber would most likely come in a separate sentence towards the end of the story.
Write positively rather than negatively.
To make sure you prioritize the most relevant information about a subject, avoid using negatives such as “no,” “not,” or “never.” Because negatives indicate the opposite of what a subject has done, they often require further clarification—negatives take up more space in a sentence. Plus, they’re confusing.
Negative: The police will not continue the investigation.
Negative: The suspect was never caught by the police.
Rather, try framing the subject’s action positively. This doesn’t mean you should make light of a tragic event; this simply means you should focus on what has happened rather than what hasn’t happened.
Positive: The police have closed the investigation.
Positive: The suspect got away with the robbery.
In both of these examples, framing the subject’s action positively made the sentences more concise and engaging. While it may take some thinking, it’s always possible to replace a negative with a positive.
Ditch the wordiness.
If you’ve ever read a police report, you know they’re descriptive—the fine details of a crime scene are often embedded in lengthy phrases. When writing a crime story, it’s easy for a journalist to regurgitate the language used in the report. However, police lingo may sound complicated to the average person, and as a journalist, you’re writing to inform the general public. It’s important to phrase things in a way that’s readable for the audience. Here are some common lengthy phrases that can be replaced with precise words:
Wordy: “fled the scene”
Wordy: “sustained fatal injuries”
Although the lengthy and precise examples each mean the same thing, the latter examples provide the reader with more clarity. When in doubt, you can always search synonyms for common lengthy phrases that occur in formal reports or everyday conversation.
These are just a few of many ways to cut unnecessary words out of journalistic writing. The most important thing to remember during the revising process is to ask yourself, “How can I best inform my audience?”