Professors who care about writing will always make a strong plea for concision, precision, and revision (CPR). After college, the probability that your writing will be read is inversely proportional to its length and clarity. In the workplace, good writers are rapidly noticed and usually land in management positions; in academia, good writers eventually earn publication, and the best of these writers actually gain a readership who follows their work.
By applying CPR to whatever you write, you will reap maximum benefits. Some advice from The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, drives the point home beautifully:
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 sentence is important because it affirms that writing has utility—it performs a function. The sentence also demonstrates that, like a well-drawn photograph or a well-designed machine, a good sentence has stylistic elegance. Many good writers have memorized the above sentence and consciously apply it to their writing. You should too.
With the advice from Strunk and White in mind, read the poorly written paragraph that follows:
Increasing foreign competition and technological change, in a variety of forms, are now, as they always have been, disrupting various well-established patterns in terms of industrial organization. An apparent growing quality in the upward movement of economic change is also causing geographers’ interest in regional adjustment problems to grow as well: problems that often focus concern on regional economic decline in a context of low rates of national productivity improvement, on loss of international competitiveness in sectors such as automobiles and primary metals.
Perhaps we can sort out the meaning of this paragraph if we work hard enough, but why bother? The paragraph is simply not designed to communicate its message clearly; the writer seems to be more concerned with supplying text-based zones of terminology than with clearly analyzing a trend. This paragraph exemplifies the kind of obtuse writing that appears in the sciences, even in print, regularly. But let us improve this paragraph by applying principles of concision, precision, and revision.
We can begin by cutting the needless and virtually meaningless words from the first few sentences in the example paragraph above—words including “in a variety of forms,” “as they always have been,” “various,” and “in terms of.” These words are needless because their meaning is already understood in context by the thinking reader. If trends “always have been,” for instance, the reader does not need to have their ongoing existence emphasized. By definition, “well-established patterns” would obviously be “various”; therefore we can strike the modifier “various” as unnecessary.
By beginning with concision, we strip away what is needless before we attempt actual revision. Our task of effective tinkering thus becomes much easier.
Next, more precision can be created in those phrases that are the least exact in their meaning—for example, “an apparent growing quality.” Most importantly, we must find a way to make the meaning of the final sentence of the paragraph more precise. In its original form, that sentence is over 50 words long and includes 10 prepositions. Note also the imprecise clusters of nouns in this sentence, including “problems that often focus concern on regional economic decline” and “a context of low rates of national productivity improvement, on loss of international competitiveness.” It is extremely difficult to fit such mouthfuls into the sentence’s context.
Overall, the key to making the paragraph’s meaning more precise is to choose clear, meaningful, representative nouns (e.g., “regional economic decline”), place them at the head of each sentence, and follow them with verbs that describe each noun’s meaning in the sentence. As a rule, readers rely on one manageable noun, rather than several lengthy noun clusters, to carry the weight of a sentence’s meaning.
After stripping away the needless words and phrases and refining the meaning of the nouns and verbs, we are poised to revise the sentence and improve its style. We can now begin to provide clearer connections from one sentence to the next via simple, standard transition words and thoughtful repetition of key terms. In the revision process, we can also begin to recognize how transitions as simple as “recently,” “this,” and “also” provide connective tissue, and how effective repetition of the key terms “decline” and “change” can bolster the reader’s understanding of the material.
Here is a revised version of the paragraph after CPR.
Recently, increasing foreign competition and technological change have disrupted well-established patterns of industrial organization. This acceleration in economic change has heightened geographers’ interest in regional adjustment problems, drawing attention to regional economic decline in such sectors as automobiles and primary metals. Regional economic decline often manifests itself through low rates of national productivity improvement and a loss of international competitiveness.
Now the paragraph’s intended topic (regional economic decline) is much clearer, and each sentence’s meaning is clearly designed to relate to the sentence next to it. In a word, the paragraph is now designed to be graceful; before revision, it was at best untidy, at worst unfathomable.
Further Training in CPR
To further your skills in concision, precision, and revision, I strongly suggest two texts by Joseph Williams: Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace and Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. The former sells for about $40 and includes writing exercises, while the latter retails for about $11. Both books are popular for their practicality and clarity, and because the author so effectively practices what he preaches. Applying the lessons you will learn from these books, you cannot help but improve your style.
Also, I urge you to buy The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, which I originally referenced at the head of this section. The book is easy to use and can be read in just a few hours. Most bookstores sell it for about ten bucks, and if there’s one style handbook that most of your professors probably have, this is it. Scientists and engineers recommend and use this book, because it covers the elements of good writing with concision and precision. I highly recommend that you spend a few dollars and purchase the print version. Your readers will be grateful.
You can visit an early version of The Elements of Style, by Strunk, for free at the following web page: