How to write a concise sentence or paragraph in IELTS Writing?
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To write clearly, cohesively, and coherently is not an easy task. In order to instruct academic writers on this, many books have attempted to show writers how to structure their sentences and paragraphs. However, in terms of style of writing, most books just simply give readers a list of rules without a clear explanation (Joseph, 1990). Williams' Style: Toward Clarity and Grace is an exception. Instead of explaining rules and giving guidelines, the author devotes effort to explaining the reasons why and why not writers should adopt a certain way of writing. This article’s aim is to introduce and discuss the opinion of the author on the topic of how to write a concise sentence or paragraph. In addition, the article will show the connection between this opinion and IELTS Writing so that learners can adapt it to their essays.
Book review and the author’s opinion
How to write a concise sentence or paragraph
After offering writers many diagnostic principles on interpretation in the first six chapters, the next focuses on how to write a concise sentence or paragraph. In this aspect, the author states that to write clearly, writers need the ability to manage the flow of their ideas with conciseness. He offers these two principles (p.115):
1. Usually, compress what you mean into the fewest words.
2. Don't state what your reader can easily infer.
Argument about how to write a concise sentence
Sources of wordiness
The author points out several sources of wordiness:
Redundant pairs: Two words in some pairs, especially those that are borrowed from Latin and French, have similar meanings. When the first word and the second mean the same, choose one. Some common redundant pairs are: full and complete, full and complete, true and accurate, hopes and desires, hope and trust, each and every, first and foremost, any and all, various and sundry, basic and fundamental, questions and problems, and, and so on and so forth.
Example: For each and every tree we plant, we are contributing to the environment
Revision: For every tree we plant, we are contributing to the environment
Redundant Modifiers: We can cross out a word that implies another. “Quietly whisper” is redundant as a whisper is already quiet, “free gift” is redundant as gifts are free. Some more redundant modifiers are: completely finish, personal beliefs, past memories, consensus of opinion, various different, sudden crisis, each individual, terrible tragedy, basic fundamentals, end result, true facts, final outcome, important essentials, initial preparation, future plans, free gift.
Example: When the natural world evolves over time, animal species die out.
Revision: When the natural world evolves, animal species die out.
This principle cannot be applied to some verbs when they come with prepositions, such as stand up, sit down or lie down.
Redundant Categories: Some words imply their general categories, so we can cross out one. For example: oval in shape, larger in size or ATM Machine.
Example: During this period of time, the tree has grown at a fast speed, becoming larger in size and greener in colour.
Revision: During this time, the tree has grown fast, becoming larger and greener.
Meaningless Modifiers: Some modifiers are added because of the habit of clearing our throats when we speak. Often, these modifiers can be removed without affecting the meaning or clarity of the sentence. Some meaningless modifiers are: kind of, really, basically, definitely, practically, actually, virtually, generally, certain, particular, individual, given, various, different, specific, for all intents and purposes.
Example: The government cannot manage to control climate change without some kind of additional help
Revision: The government cannot manage to control climate change without additional help.
Pompous Diction: We can also replace unnecessary formal words with more common ones. These ordinary words do not cause us to lose anything important but help our diction sharper and more direct. Examples of some near-synonyms of “big words”
Belaboring the Obvious: Writers should avoid stating the obvious, what everyone already knows
Example: The purpose of this course is to teach children how to understand the subject of math.
In this case, course implies purpose, teach implies how to understand and math implies subject
Revision: This course teaches children math.
Excessive Detail: Writers should focus on the information they want to emphasise and avoid stating excessive details.
Example: Saigon, which is the most dynamic city in Vietnam and currently enjoying significant economic growth, is facing a new wave of Covid, which is the second wave in 2021.
Revision: Saigon is facing a new wave of Covid.
A Phrase for a Word: There are many cases where a single word can replace a long phrase.
Example: In light of the fact that parents spend most of their time at work, there is little family bonding time.
Revision: Because parents spend most of their time at work, there is little family bonding time.
Example: Despite the fact that the effects of global warming have become more serious, little effort has been made.
Revision: Although the effects of global warming have become more serious, little effort has been made.
Example: In the event that people only work for money, it is difficult to satisfy all of their expectations.
Revision: If people only work for money, it is difficult to satisfy all of their expectations.
Example: In a situation in which parents have no time to spend with their children, there is a lack of family connection.
Revision: When parents have no time to spend with their children, there is a lack of family connection.
Example: The government has to raise people’s awareness concerning the matter of global warming.
Revision: The government has to raise people’s awareness about global warming.
Example: In order to fight crime, there is a need for more efforts from the government.
Revision: To fight crime, the government must make more efforts.
Example: Thanks to social media, everybody is able to see each other at the touch of a button.
Revision: Thanks to social media, everybody can see each other at the touch of a button.
Example: There is a chance that the population will continue to rise in the next ten years.
Revision: The population may rise in the next ten years.
Example: Prior to the imposition of the nationwide lockdown, it is possible that many people have caught Covid-19.
Revision: Before the imposition of the nationwide lockdown, many people have possibly caught Covid-19.
Example: There is an increase in the number of boys who like practicing football.
Revision: More boys like practicing football.
Metadiscourse, which is used to refer to the writer’s thinking, is also a source of wordiness. Writers should avoid burying their ideas under too much metadiscourse.
Example: Having considered all parts of the issues, my opinion on the problem of global warming is that it is important to note that one of the most significant methods to reduce this is people should think about how to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that they emit.
Revision: One method to reduce global warming is to reduce people’s carbon footprint.
Here are a few common examples of metadiscourse:
Hedges are devices that reduce the degree of certainty of a statement: usually, often, sometimes, almost, virtually, possibly, perhaps, apparently, seemingly, in some ways, to a certain extent, sort of, somewhat, more or less, for the most part, for all intents and purposes, in some respects, in my opinion, at least, may, might, can, could, seem, tend, try, attempt, seek, hope
Example: For the most parts, this method seems to be somewhat detrimental.
Revision: This method is detrimental.
Emphatics are used to show emphasis on the writer’s point: as everyone knows, it is generally agreed that, it is quite true that, it's clear that, it is obvious that, the fact is, as we can plainly see, literally, clearly, obviously, undoubtedly, certainly, of course, indeed, inevitably, very, invariably, always, key, central, crucial, basic, fundamental, major, cardinal, primary, principal, essential.
Example: As we can see from the chart, it is clear that the trend will certainly continue to always rise.
Revision: The trend will continue to rise.
Sequencers and topicalizers are words, phrases or sentences that lead the reader through the text: First, second, next, in this part of the essay, in this essay, now we discuss, …
Example: In this part of the text, we will deal with the problem of water pollution. It is my intention to first point out that …
Revision: The next problem is water pollution. First, …
Attributors and narrators tell the reader how the writer came up with the ideas or facts or opinions: I was concerned with, I have concluded, I think, observed to exist, is found to exist, is seen, noticed, noted, remarked.
Example: I was concerned with the fact that lots of studies are found to disagree with the method that is noted by the government.
Revision: Lots of studies disagree with the method of the government
Not the negative
The author argues that if one wants to write a concise sentence or paragraph, he should prioritize using affirmatives instead of negatives. This is also suggested by William Strunk and E.B. White (2000). However, negatives can still be used in cases where the writer wants to contradict or deny some other points.
Example: Don't write in the negative.
Revision: Write in the affirmative.
Some negatives that can be converted into affirmatives:
Example: People’s views on this matter are not the same, some think that we should not accept children who are not old enough to go to school.
Revision: People’s views on this matter are different, some think that we should reject children who are too young to attend school.
Discussion about how to write a concise sentence
As can be seen from the examples above, wordiness hurts communication as it forces readers to do a lot of work and impedes the reader’s understanding. Not only Williams, in his series of instructing writers on research writing, Adrian Wallwork also agrees that we should cut redundant words and phrases if they do nothing to help the reader understand a sentence. The ability to write a concise sentence is one of the most important writing skills.
Lengthy sentences can make readers overwhelmed and confused. These sprawling sentences require readers to distinguish between useful and unnecessary parts of a sentence, which is usually the writer's job. This unwanted reading process makes readers irritated, especially when they have to analyze long after long sentences. Forcing readers to work hard to understand the message of a sentence can make them less receptive to the ideas of that sentence (Wallwork, 2016). As a result, instead of reading word by word, readers will start to scan, only read one in every five or six words.
Furthermore, it is difficult for readers to comprehend the meaning of a wordy sentence. This is because the sentence's main idea is buried under a lot of unnecessary words and redundant qualifiers. Wordy sentences disrupt the flow of the essay (Rapp, 2021), making it difficult for readers to identify the main point that the writer is trying to convey. The message could be lost if there is too much extra information. By contrast, short sentences are more effective in drawing the reader’s attention, thereby helping the points stand out from the rest of the text (Wallwork, 2016).
Concision also plays an important role in the IELTS Writing test. The test consists of two parts: Task 1 with a minimum of 150 words, Task 2 with a minimum of 250 words and there is no word limit for both tasks. However, writing too much, exceeding the minimum number of words is a waste of time because the longer you write, the shorter your time for the other task. This negatively affects not only the ability to finish the test on time of the candidate. Therefore, writing concisely and cohesively provides test-takers with more time for planning and checking.
According to the IELTS Writing Band Descriptors, write a concise sentence or paragraph brings benefits to three of the four marking criteria:
Coherence and Cohesion emphasizes logic in arranging and presenting the point of a sentence or a paragraph in a cohesive, coherent and understandable way. A short, concise, clear writing style will help readers (examiners) grasp the writer’s ideas quickly and easily (Wallwork, 2013) – a huge plus for this criterion.
Grammatical Range and Accuracy refers to the use of flexible and precise grammatical structures. Therefore, all the sentences in the essay should have a clear structure and all the words in a sentence should serve a specific purpose. This is an important factor to help the essay satisfy this criterion. Moreover, limiting long, sprawling sentences also helps writers avoid as many grammatical errors as possible (Wallwork, 2016).
Lexical resources are concerned with the vocabulary used in the essay to convey the writer’s ideas. One of the most effective ways to satisfy this criterion is to cut out long words and phrases that do not carry much value as they are very abstract and not memorable words for the reader (Wallwork, 2016). Instead, writers should prioritize words with specific meaning.
However, it is wrong to think that every of the sentences in an essay must be short. Short and simple sentences make the writing becomes repetitive and boring. According to the IELTS Band Descriptor, in order to achieve at least band 6 in Grammatical Range and Accuracy, the writer has to demonstrate the ability to use “complex structures”. Moreover, if the essay does not meet the word limit, long sentences might be its life-saver. Wallwork (2011) states that the occasional long sentence is acceptable if it is easy to understand, and dividing it into shorter sentences would be difficult to achieve. Therefore, test takers must be flexible in writing, producing, and managing short and long sentences skillfully.
This article has introduced the opinion of Williams, who is the author of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, on the subject of how to write a concise sentence or paragraph. The author claims that if a writer wants to write clearly, he must compress his meaning into the fewest words and avoid stating what his readers can easily infer. The author also suggests several ways to reduce wordiness in a sentence or a paragraph. As discussed above, wordiness hurts communication as it makes the reading process tiring. It also reduces the clarity and directness of a sentence. Therefore, I believe that we should follow the principles suggested by Williams in every type of writing, including the IELTS Writing Test. Concision helps to save time for test takers, helps to ease the reading process for the examiner, and helps to boost the score of an essay.
Nguyễn Tiến Thành