Fewer Words, Better Writing

 Ed Weathers

These days, most colleges ask that your application essay be
no more than 500 words. To say something meaningful in just 500 words isn’t
easy, but it can be done. First, you need to fit your subject to the size of
the essay. For more on how to choose a subject, see What to put in your College Application Essay.

Fewer Words, Better WritingAfter you’ve chosen your subject and written a draft or two, it’s time to get rid of the fat.

As a writing teacher and professional writer, I’ve learned a
few tricks about how to say more with fewer words—a basic virtue of all good

The following suggestions apply, not just to your college
essay, but also to your freshman composition papers, your senior thesis, your
first corporate report, and everything else you will ever write. Here is how to
make the most of every 500 words you write for the rest of your life:

Remove implied redundancies.

Wordy: “The young
girl screamed loudly as she sat on the soft fluffy dog in the white snow.”

Better: “The girl
screamed as she sat on the fluffy dog in the snow.”

When you take out “young,” “loudly,” “soft,” and “white,”
you’ve lost no information. A girl is by implication young. A scream is by
implication loud. (If it’s a soft scream, then the adjective “soft”
should be added.) Can a fluffy dog be anything else but soft? No. Is all snow
white? No. But if you simply say “snow,” the reader will see white.


When possible, replace adverbial words and phrases by using one well-chosen
base word.

Wordy: “walked with
great confidence

Better: “strode”
or “marched”


Better: “huge” or
“enormous” or “gigantic”

“spoke under
her breath

“whispered” or “mumbled” or “murmured”


Most of the time, use active-voice verbs.

Wordy: “The words
were spoken by my uncle.”

Better: “My uncle
spoke the words.”


Wordy: “The ducks
were shot by Norm.”

Better: “Norm
shot the ducks.”

(Note: The passive voice has its place. For more on the
passive voice, see this link: The Coward’s Cop-Out: Abuse of the passive voice.)


Avoid noun-based phrases where a single strong verb will do

Wordy: “I have
that I will pass the test,”

Better: “I hope I
will pass the test.”


Wordy: “We made
a decision
to climb the mountain”

Better: “We
decided to climb the mountain.”


Wordy: “She came
to the conclusion that she would
apply only to state schools”

Better: “She
opted to apply only to state schools.”


Avoid most intensifiers.
These include words like “very,” “really,”
and “extremely.”

Wordy: “I am very
eager to take on really difficult subjects in the extremely challenging college

Better: “I am
eager to take on difficult subjects in the challenging college curriculum.”

The intensifiers add nothing to the original sentence and in
fact make it seem that the student is trying really very extremely too hard.


Avoid most deintensifiers.
These include words like “rather,”
“somewhat,” and “quite.”

Wordy: “I am
rather eager to take on the somewhat difficult subjects in the quite
challenging college curriculum.”

Better: “I am
eager to take on difficult subjects in the challenging college curriculum.”

The deintensifiers add nothing to the original sentence and
in fact make the writer sound rather somewhat quite wishy-washy.


Avoid pompous phrasing.

Wordy: “at this
point in time”

Better: “now” or


Wordy: “He
engaged in the utilization of the chain saw.”

Better: “He used
the chain saw.”


Consider changing “there are” and “it is” phrasing.

Wordy: “There are
many people who prefer bagels to donuts.”

Better:  “Many people prefer bagels to donuts.”


Wordy: “It is
often the case that college seniors get careless about doing their schoolwork.”

Better: “College
seniors often neglect their schoolwork.”

(Note that I’ve also changed the long-winded phrase “get
careless about doing” with the crisp verb “neglect,” which contains all the
same information. Well-chosen verbs are at the heart of good, concise writing.)


Put statements in positive form.

Wordy: “It was
not uncommon for Ted to talk too much.”

Better: “Ted
often talked too much.”


Wordy: “None of
the dogs in the room appeared sick or injured.”

Better: “All the
dogs in the room appeared healthy.”


Wordy: “I hardly
ever saw Jane when she was not drunk.”

Better: “I rarely
saw Jane sober.”

(Like most rules, this can be broken in certain
circumstances. For more on this subject, see this link: Don’t Tie Yourself in Nots. I first learned this advice from the wonderful book The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, which you should read


Avoid empty “all-purpose” nouns.

Wordy: “The
dining situation in the dorms is inefficient.”

Better: “Dorm
dining is inefficient.”


Wordy: “Drinking
water is a factor in preventing dehydration.”

Better: “Drinking
water prevents dehydration.”


Wordy: “Grades
are a consideration to be an issue in college admission decisions.”

Better: “Grades
influence college admission decisions.”


Avoid long imprecise phrases where a single precise word will do.

Wordy: “wooden
interdental stimulators”



“electronically-regulated traffic-control mechanisms”


(Note: These two wordy examples come from real government documents.
For more examples of bad writing, see this link: http://writeyourbest.blogspot.com/2011/01/can-you-translate-this-16-real-examples.html


Avoid redundant categories.

Wordy: “The
campus is a place where people feel safe.”

Better: “People
feel safe on campus.”


Wordy: “My mother
is a person who cares about others,”

Better: “My
mother cares about others.”


“Waitressing is a job that teaches many life skills.”

“Waitressing teaches many life skills.”


Avoid redundant pairs.

Wordy: “our goals
and objectives”

Better: just “our
goals” or just “our objectives”


Wordy: “your
hopes and dreams”

Better: just
“your hopes” or just “your dreams”


Tighten too-loose sentences.

Wordy: “There I
was, walking in the woods, and it was 6 a.m. in the morning, and the sun was
just above the horizon in the east when I saw twelve crows and they were flying
low above the wheat field.”

Better: “Walking
in the woods at 6 a.m., the sun just above the horizon, I saw twelve crows
flying low above the wheat field.”
Subordinate minor ideas into clauses and phrases instead of giving them their
own sentences.

Wordy: “The dog
was brown. It was also large. It came at me slowly. It was snarling. The wind
was rising. Rain could be seen in the east, where there were hills. I began to

Better: “The
large brown dog crept toward me, snarling. The wind was rising, and I could see
rain in the eastern hills. I began to run.”

(Note: There are other good ways to merge these ideas into
sentences. How you do it depends on the effect you wish to achieve.)

Note that in all this advice, I don’t recommend that you
save words by removing ideas, information, examples, or concrete images from
your writing. Indeed, they are the substance of good writing. When you save
words by using such tricks as I’ve listed here, you have room for even more

Five hundred words? A good writer can make the world tremble
with that number. The Gettysburg Address contained 272 words. My guess is,
Lincoln would have gotten into a few good colleges with that.

Ed Weathers is a retired magazine writer, editor, and college writing instructor. His writing website is writeyourbest.blogspot.com.

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