70 Concise Writing and Word Choice

Christina Frasier

Learning Objectives

  • Recognize concise writing
  • Identify and common problems with word choice

Writing Concisely

Fundamentally, your goal in composition is to learn to write in a way that others will understand in college and in professional settings. However, when students work on developing their academic voice in composition classes, sometimes they think that more complex writing is automatically more sophisticated. This is not necessarily the case. In fact, you want to make sure your audience doesn’t have to puzzle out what you are trying to say. Wordy writing can also frustrate your reader. Instead, your writing should be clear, which involves writing concisely and precisely.


Concise sentences flow well and are not redundant. Consider the following sentences:


Bad: Lab personnel should keep their workspaces clean, and since this is important, you must clean your area regularly.

Better: Lab personnel should maintain their workspaces by cleaning regularly.

While the first sentence is not ungrammatical, it is repetitive. The second sentence has the same substance but is stated more concisely.


Concise writing is not repetitive and is thus more brief. Consider the following sentences:


  • Bad: At this point in time, our procedures state that when you take a clean container for chemicals, you should grab a label at the same time, too, to label your container. Otherwise, the container will become an unknown.
  • Better: Lab techs must label new containers immediately.

Note how the second sentence cuts out the fluff and zeroes in on what really matters.


Writing precisely means using concrete language and being specific. Consider the following sentences:


  • Bad: In 2015, top sleep researchers determined that teens who used screens had more trouble sleeping, which lead to a decline in mental health (Lemola et al, 2015, p. 415).
  • Better: Lemola et al. (2015) found that teens who texted, watched television, or played video games before bedtime suffered from poorer mental health as a result of sleep deprivation (p. 415).

Again, the first sentence is not ungrammatical, but it is vague (eg, “top sleep researchers” and “screens”). The second sentence is more specific up front about who the researchers are and also concretely identifies the types of screen use leading to sleep disturbances.


Word Choice–what not to do

Writing clearly also involves choosing the right words for the job. Working on building your vocabulary and knowing when to use the right words is an important aspect of clear and effective writing, Rather than giving you a list of good vocabulary words, this section will focus more on the sort of language that is not appropriate for formal writing in most academic and professional settings, including:

  • Slang
  • Clichés
  • Aphorisms
  • Metaphors
  • Feeling words
  • Meaningless words and phrases
  • Vague adjectives and adverbs
  • Euphemisms
  • Pejoratives
  • Pretentious language
  • Jargon

When you are writing for a more formal audience—whether it is at university or on the job—you will need to edit out colloquialisms from your writing. Another term for “colloquial” is “vernacular,” or everyday language. Academic writing demands the sort of precision and clarity that informal language does not offer. Below is a list of common colloquialisms that limit the formality and clarity of your academic voice.


If a word you use has several entries in Urban Dictionary, it is likely not appropriate for a formal essay. In English, slang changes quickly and is often used by a subset of people. Because of these features, slang words and phrases can be confusing to readers who are unfamiliar with the terms. In using slang, the writer risks alienating their audience. If you aren’t sure whether a word or phrase is slang, check it out in Urban Dictionary and follow up with your professor before your assignment is due.


  • Bad: Many researchers think that gene editing is awesome.
  • Better: Researchers consider gene editing to be a promising technology.


  • Bad: Investors who slept on a stock were sad when it started pumping.
  • Better: Investors often regret not buying stocks when their value increases sharply.



Clichés are useful in casual writing when a writer is not sure how to express themselves. However, in formal writing, clichés are vague and add nothing concrete to your paper. Chances are, if you have heard a phrase that is repeated often, it is a cliché. Not sure if the phrase you just wrote is a cliché or not? Here is a massive list.


  • Bad: Unprepared college freshman can feel like it’s sink or swim when it comes to how hard classes are compared to high school.
  • Better: Some first-year college students might experience stress when coping with the difficulty of their classes.



Aphorisms are platitudes (and often clichés) that offer advice. They are generally too vague for the clarity that academic writing demands.


  • Bad: Since actions speak louder than words, parents should model the behaviors they want to see in their kids.
  • Better: Parents can model behavior for their children rather than relying solely on verbal cues.



Because metaphors involve comparisons of one thing to another, they are not precise.


  • Bad: The house bill sustained a heavy blow when the Speaker refused to refer it to committee.
  • Better: The bill’s future is uncertain because the Speaker of the House refused to refer it to committee.

Note: metaphors are used commonly in journalistic and other types of writing, even academic writing. However, in a composition class where you are learning the basics, avoiding metaphorical language is best.

Feeling words

Feeling words state the writer’s opinions or emotions about a subject. Unless you are writing a personal narrative or a reflection, avoid using emotive language.


  • Bad: Like most people who are pacifists, I don’t believe in using weapons of mass destruction.
  • Better: Pacifists argue against using weapons of mass destruction


Other feeling words include confused, scary, angry, sad, weak, happy, and strong. Notice that these words are all elementary terms, so they are not best for academic writing in addition to being emotive.

Meaningless or vague words & phrases

Many of the phrasing problems we looked at above are essentially meaningless, especially clichés. However, there are also other phrases that, while not clichés, are fluff rather than substance.


  • Be that as it may
  • At the end of the day
  • It all adds up to
  • At this moment in time
  • State of the art
  • A fraction of the cost
  • Environmentally friendly
  • In terms of
  • The fact that
  • Needless to say
  • The fact of the matter is
  • First and foremost


Vague adjectives and adverbs

Vague adjectives include the following:


  • Good
  • Bad
  • Big
  • Few
  • Fast
  • Nice
  • Hard
  • High
  • A lot
  • Tons of


Vague adverbs include the following:


  • Very
  • Quickly
  • Acceptably
  • Really



People use euphemisms when either they can’t handle a more direct term or they think their audience cannot handle a more direct term. They are imprecise and vague on purpose. Be brave and confident; say the words and be straightforward. Your audience can cope with the words.


  • Bad: The “pink tax” is when women have to pay more for feminine hygiene products to deal with their time of the month.
  • Better: Thirty-six states charge a “pink tax,” which applies to tampons, liners, pads, and cups (Wilson, 2018, para. 1).
  • Bad: Ronald Reagan passed in 2004.
  • Better: Ronald Regan died in 2004.



Pejoratives indicate a judgmental approach to a topic; even in situations where you are free in your writing to express your opinion, pejoratives can show bias.


  • Bad: The state focused on getting deadbeat dads to pay up by garnishing their wages.
  • Better: The state is focused on garnishing the wages of parents who evade their child support obligations.

Note: The bad example is also sexist.


Pretentious language

Upon being told they need to work on expanding their vocabulary, students might choose a “big” word from a thesaurus–but it may not be the best word for the job. The subsequent result can read as unclear, stuffy, or at worst, unintentionally funny.


  • Bad: Inasmuch as they say they want to raise their grades, students must ameliorate their enigmatic discourse.
  • Better: Students must edit out unclear language in their papers for a higher grade.


Your professors understand that you are trying to balance writing concisely with developing a sophisticated vocabulary. Missteps with vocabulary are common, especially since English has many words with fine shades of meaning. However, using complex words for the sake of having them is an enemy of clear and concise writing. Being clear and direct, even if it means editing out a fancy word, is always the best bet.


Jargon is specialized language associated with particular fields or groups. For example, the medical field has many words that are specifically used in healthcare settings. Using jargon is like using pretentious language. While jargon is not necessarily informal, it can be confusing to readers who are not expert in the field or activity for which the writer is using the language.

Part of the importance of assessing your audience is to consider their depth of knowledge about your topic. For example, if you were writing a paper about gene editing for an undergraduate class, jargon would not be appropriate. However, if you were writing an application essay to get into a graduate biomed program, jargon related to the field might be appropriate.



  • Bad: The politician parried the counter-riposte of the difficult constituent on the subject of raising taxes.
  • Better: The politician defended his policy.

The above metaphor uses fencing terminology, which might confuse your audience.


Key Takeaway

By eliminating colloquial words and phrases from your writing, you will be able to communicate in a clearer and more direct way with your audience. Being able to communicate clearly and directly will enhance your credibility during your time in college and later in professional contexts.




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From College to Career: A Handbook for Student Writers Copyright © by Christina Frasier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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