Taking a Scalpel to Wordy Prose

By Janet Mizrahi

Communicating in the world of work requires getting to the point quickly and making that point clearly and concisely. But our students have been rewarded for beefing up their prose to make word or page count for years. Consequently, one of the most important lessons we can teach business communication students is to eliminate wordiness in their writing.

I feel so strongly about conciseness that I dedicate several class sessions to teaching students to trim their prose. In the first session, I lead my class through strategies to foster pithy prose found in the Guffey/Loewy textbooks: cutting wordy expressions; eliminating long lead-ins; avoiding fillers such as there is/are and it is/were; removing redundancies; and axing empty words.

Then I have students complete several exercises to reinforce these writing strategies, assigning some in class as individual work and some for homework. (See Revising for Conciseness, Using Bullets for Surefire Reading Comprehension, and Keeping It Simple under the Classroom Exercise tab.)

This all leads up to a more in-depth assignment, The Conciseness Exercise (downloadable at the end of this post), which I grade as homework or participation. It works like this.

First, I ask students write about 500 words as part of their individual section of a team produced long report. I ask them to not edit this draft, which they write at home, and to have a hard copy when we do the in-class workshop, explaining that we will go through a series of steps during which they will cut the number of words by half.

The day we do the Conciseness Exercise, we go through eight steps that lead to a complete rewrite. I regularly remind students to be aware of word count and to recall the conciseness strategies we’ve discussed and that they’ve worked on previously. I keep tight control over what the students are doing and tell them not to move forward to the next step until I discuss it with the entire class. After completing this activity, students compare their original to the edited version and are often shocked by how wordy the original was.

While I cannot boast that all students leave my classroom as tight writers, these exercises have consistently garnered comments at the end of the class in which students say they are grateful to have learned to write more concisely. I hope they actually do.

Here is the Conciseness Exercise for you to download. Happy Editing!

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