Concise Writing: Kick weak words out of your e-learning courses

In his last blog, Nick described his struggle with moving from scholastic writing where length is rewarded to a more concise writing style. Nick posed the question, “Which is better?” He suggested “better” was somewhere in the middle. I agree–and so does Purdue University! One of my favorite explanations of concise writing is from the Purdue Online Writing Lab as published in The Owl:  “The goal of concise writing is to use the most effective words. Concise writing does not always have to have the fewest words, but it always uses the strongest ones.” Let’s take a look at how I use technology to help bring down the wordiness level in my writing. (Don’t tell Nick, but I can easily move back to my “thesis-trained,” wordy writing style if I’m not careful.)

TIP:  Cut unnecessary prepositions.

Wordiness is often disguised in prepositional phrases. I’m often shocked at how easy it is to be more concise simply by rearranging a sentence to remove prepositional phrases. Let’s look at the last sentence and make it more concise.

Wordy 1

Concise 1

QUICK FIX 1:  Have Microsoft Word identify successive prepositional phrases.

For instructions on how to do this, look at QUICK FIX 2.

TIP: Use passive voice only when necessary.

In case you haven’t been introduced to active verses passive voice, let me give you a quick introduction. In an active sentence, the subject is doing the action. For example:


In a passive sentence, the subject is not doing the action, but is a passive receiver of the action.  For example:

Tense 2

Passive voice isn’t always wrong, but it can add unnecessary words to a sentence. When I notice a sentence is passive, I decide if making it active is a stronger choice. Probably 90% of the time, active is better. I just need to make sure the focus is on the right thing.  The focus in the first example is the student; the focus in the second is the objective. In the example above, the passive tense adds two extra words. Two extra words may not seem too bad in this single sentence, but imagine an entire course full of passive sentences.

By the way, if you would like more information on passive voice, click here to read Grammar Girl’s explanation.

QUICK FIX 2:  Set grammar check to identify passive voice for you.

To set grammar check in Word 2010 to identify areas where you can be more concise:

  1. Go to the File tab, and click Options.
  2. In the Proofing section, select Grammar & Style in the Writing Style drop-down, and then click the Settings button.
  3. In the Grammar Settings dialog box, select the options you want.  (To help find wordiness, click the Passive sentences, Successive prepositional phrases, and the Wordiness check boxes.)
  4. Click the OK button.
  5. Click the OK button again. 

Screen Shot

TIP: Use “which” and “that” sparingly.

Often the words “which” or “that” can simply be eliminated from a sentence and not change the meaning at all. Sometimes I leave them in to help the sentence flow better, but I generally remove them when I realize that I’ve used the words too often. Now, take a look at the sentence in the last paragraph. Is the word “that” necessary? Nope, it can be removed.

QUICK FIX 3: Do a word search to find your overused words.

  1. Press Ctlr+F.
  2. Enter the overused (and possibly unnecessary) word you want to find. (In my case, I search for “that.”)
  3. Reword the sentence, if needed. 

A Postscript from Nick: Using the suggestions Desiree made above, try your hand at re-writing my latest post, found here. We’ll give away a free E-Learning Uncovered book to our favorite response.

Desiree Pinder
Artisan E-Learning

3 Responses to “Concise Writing: Kick weak words out of your e-learning courses

  • Deadline for submissions to the PS at the bottom of this post is Tuesday, June 4, 2013. We’re looking forward to the creative responses!

    • Nick Elkins
      8 years ago

      Congratulations to Rick for winning our book giveaway. His blog post re-write was our favorite. Thanks to everyone who participated!

  • elearntem
    8 years ago

    Great Article Thanks !

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