Senior Seminar: Writing Workshop 4

Back to the Syllabus


Williams has presented ways to revise our writing for greater clarity and cohesion. This type of revision does not necessarily make our writing shorter. So, in Chapter 7, Williams discusses ways to revise our writing for concision.

Two sources of wordiness that are relevant to academic writers are:

  1. Belaboring the obvious (pp. 121-122; 129-130)
  2. Metadiscourse (pp. 125-130)

You should study the example of a law student’s writing on pp. 129-130. Note that the same example appears on p. 121 to illustrate writing that is all “filler.” It is a sort of writing that we produce when we write on a new topic.

Sometimes students find it difficult to revise for concision or find it pointless to cut words that they have already written. If you find it hard to achieve concision, remember two things: 

First, revising for concision is in some ways the opposite of how students typically do writing assignments in undergraduate and graduate courses. The assignments have a minimum word limit, and students try to meet it by using filler. But professional writing usually has a maximum word limit, and writers try to squeeze in as much information as possible within a given limit. So when you revise for concision, remind yourself that you are practicing what every professional writer does.

Second, the type of revision we have done so far didn’t change the meaning of the original text. We have tried to say the same thing more clearly or coherently. By contrast, revising for concision may seem to you to change the meaning of the original text, because this type of revision results in a shorter text (review Williams’s revision of the law student example). The appearance, however, is deceptive: when we revise for concision, we eliminate what the reader doesn’t need to hear and clarify what the reader does need to hear. So remember that revising for concision is an attempt to clarify the core message of the original text rather than to alter the meaning of the original.

You should be ruthless with your own words because you want every word to do work. Here’s what Zinsser says in his On Writing Well:

Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?

Simplify, simplify. 

Homework for Workshop 5

The best way to practice revising for concision is to learn how to be ruthless in cutting words. So we’ll play a game this time.

First, find a paragraph or part of a paragraph that is about 200 words. You can source from your old or current writing. You will probably find it easier to use texts that occur in the middle of a paper (where you are more likely to be making your substantive point) rather than at the beginning or end (where metadiscourse is often appropriate).

Second, revise your text for clarity, cohesion, and concision. For clarity and cohesion, review the principles we have discussed in the previous workshops. For concision, consult Williams’ ideas from Chapter 7 and be as ruthless as possible. Here are the rules of this game:

  1. Make your revised paragraph at least half the length of the original.
  2. Then make it even shorter (try to make it as short as you can).
  3. In each revision, you can of course eliminate entire sentences from the original, and you may clarify the message of the original text. But don’t make the paragraph shorter by changing the message. For example, if the original text conveys a complex idea in a wordy prose, don’t simplify or dumb down the idea. Rather, make the prose concise.

Your work will then have at least three paragraphs (original plus first and second revisions). To submit your work, follow Steps 4–6 of the previous homework. Please submit by 1pm of the day of the next workshop so that I’ll have time to look over your revisions beforehand.