Every time I write, my goal is to write easy-to-read sentences.
I never want my audience to stumble or slow down or start a sentence over. That’s why, whenever possible, I use simple words instead of jargon, periods instead of semicolons, and active voice instead of passive voice. Most importantly, though, that’s why I strive to write concisely.
Framing your message concisely means saying everything you need to say in as few words as possible. It’s one of the most significant steps a writer can take towards clarity and comprehension -- two crucial building blocks when it comes to reader engagement.
But executing succinct writing (much less recognizing when a sentence could be tighter in the first place) doesn't come naturally to most people. Trimming the fat off your writing is a learned skill that requires effort.
The good news is you can start learning and honing that skill today by practicing the exercises below.
6 Exercises That’ll Train You to Write Concisely
By forcing you to either cut word count or stay within a word count, these exercises will help you do two things:
- Hone your writing skills, helping you to keep your sentences tight and powerful.
- Recognize when sentences are wordy in the first place, which is half the battle when it comes to writing concisely.
So come on. Let’s jump in …
1) Write a haiku a day.
A haiku is a Japanese poem. Traditional haikus must have seventeen syllables between three lines: five in the first line, seven in the second line, and five again in the third, like this one by Murakami Kijo:
First autumn morning:
the mirror I stare into
shows my father’s face."
But the 5-7-5 structure is not a hard-and-fast rule. In fact, most modern haikus are written in varying syllabic patterns, like this one by Yosa Buson, written in 5-3-5:
Is full of regret."
Well-written haikus have an elegance to them -- a rhythm. Each words holds weight -- and each syllable is important -- because that’s what the craft demands. And while it’s challenging to create an emotional image when you only have a dozen or so syllables to work with, doing so trains you to think deeply about your writing. It forces you to evaluate the opportunity cost of words.
Try writing a haiku every evening before going to bed. You can write about anything -- your day, your dog, the untouched Scotch tape in your drawer at work -- as long as you hold yourself to one of the predetermined syllabic structures above.
By restricting each tweet to 140 characters, Twitter forces you to relay an impactful or interesting or compelling or funny message quickly.
There. That last sentence was 140 characters, which came out to a mere 22 words with which to express why Twitter is an effective training tool for writers. Could I have composed more on the subject? Absolutely. But that’s not the point. The point is to get your point across in as few words as possible.
Tweeting often allows you to sharpen that skill.
3) Freewrite non-stop for 2 minutes, then halve the text.
When freewriting, you only have to follow one rule: don’t stop until the timer goes off.
Everything else is fair game: you can misspell words and forget commas and apostrophes. You can tell a story or give an opinion or paint a picture. As long as you don’t slow down, a freewrite is your opportunity to word vomit (which can actually be fun and cathartic). After two minutes of freewriting, you’ll likely have something verbose in front of you because you didn’t on-the-go edit. Do a quick CTRL-A (Mac users: Command-A) and check the word count. If you’re at 124 words, for instance, then your goal would be to relay the same message in only 62 words.
Run this exercise enough and you’ll start to recognize your negative writing tendencies. In other words, you’ll begin to see patterns in your writing, which will alert you to the bad habits you should watch out for when writing.
For example, are you using too many adverbs? Are your words too complex (“utilize” vs. “use”). Do you lean on the passive voice too much? All these habits will come to the surface when you force yourself to halve the text you just speedily wrote.
4) Simplify Wikipedia paragraphs.
You might be thinking, but Wikipedia articles are already concise. And they are.
Wikipedia is definitely a no-fluff zone, which is why this exercise is so stellar. You see, by forcing yourself to summarize an already to-the-point paragraph into something even more succinct, you put your editing brain into overdrive.
It’s like sprinting the final 100 yards of a five-mile run, when your lungs are shot. Or pushing through one more squat at the gym, when your legs feel like Jell-O. That extra effort goes a long way in terms of developing you physically -- and it will do wonders for your writing, too.
For example, let’s take this 175-word paragraph from the “Corporate history” section of HubSpot’s Wikipedia page:
HubSpot was founded by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2006. Shah invested $500,000, which was followed by angel investments from Edward B. Roberts, the chair of the Entrepreneurship Center at MIT and fellow MIT Sloan classmate and Entrepreneur Brian Shin. The company introduced the HubSpot software in beta in 2006 and officially launched it in December 2007. An additional $5 million in funding was raised in 2007, which was followed by $12 million in May 2008, and $16 million in late 2009. The company grew from $255,000 in revenues the first year the software was released to $15.6 million in 2010. Later that year HubSpot announced its acquisition of oneforty. Oneforty began as an app store for Twitter, but shifted into an online resource for social media marketing. The company also introduced new software for personalizing websites to each visitor. According to Forbes, HubSpot started out targeting companies of 1–10 employees, but "moved steadily upmarket to serve larger businesses of up to 1000 employees."
Now let’s condense it into a 52-word bullet:
Founded by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah at MIT in 2006, HubSpot received a series of multimillion dollar capital injections that helped it grow more than 60X in its fourth year of business. That same year, HubSpot announced its acquisition of oneforty, introduced new website-personalization software, and began targeting much bigger businesses."
The end-result is comparable to a CliffsNotes study guide. Or one of those recap snippets summarizing the last episode of your favorite show. In any case, it’s a snapshot -- a concise rundown -- and while it may be challenging to create, it’ll also make you a better writer.
5) Explain a foreign concept in 100 words or less.
Like most of these exercises, this one’s easy to grasp and hard to execute. It asks that you pick an unfamiliar concept or subject, and effectively explain it, in writing, in less than 100 words. That means you have to be concise without being vague. In other words, you should strive to break down the “what,” “why,” and “how” of the concept or subject.
And remember: by practicing this challenge, you’ll not only sharpen your writing, but you’ll also teach yourself something new.
6) Read Hemingway, Bukowski, and Vonnegut.
In his memoir, On Writing, Stephen King wrote, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
You heard the master. Writers are readers, too. And if writers want to be concise, they must read other concise writers…
Like Ernest Hemingway, who is said to have written the world’s shortest novel. It’s six words long: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Like Charles Bukowski, who summed up the essence of his first novel, Post Office, in the book’s opening sentence, which reads, “It began as a mistake.”
Like Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote most of his novels, including his masterpiece, Cat’s Cradle, in a series of chapters that rarely exceeded two pages in length. This concise approach kept his storylines tight, punchy, and addicting. (Read this for more Vonnegut-inspired writing tips.)
The first five exercises in this article will help you to hone your sentences, to keep them succinct and ready to cut. But this last exercise will ensure that you’re reading some of the finest sentences ever written, a practice that will undoubtedly shape your understanding of the craft as a whole, giving you something to strive for and admire.
This is your inspiration. And now that you have it, let’s get to work. Let’s get better.
Which exercises are you most excited to try? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Originally published Apr 1, 2016 8:00:00 AM, updated August 26 2017