3 tips to write succinctly

Academic writers are often told to “write succinctly”…but what makes your writing succinct? Use short, concise words, and short sentences, says Columbia University.

I was looking for writing resources online that would be helpful for non-native English academic writers and found Columbia University biology department’s guide on “Writing a Scientific Research Article.”

In order to write succinctly, Columbia’s page suggests five things:

  1. Use verbs instead of nouns
  2. Use strong verbs instead of “to be”
  3. Use short words
  4. Use concise terms
  5. Use short sentences

I’ve talked about the verbs (points nos. 1 & 2) in “3 ways to cut the clutter from your writing.” In this post, I’ll talk briefly why you should use short, concise words and short sentences (nos. 3-5) and what specifically to look out for.

[ In this article… ]

Why use short, concise terms & short sentences?

As a reminder: why should you use short, concise terms and short sentences?

Think about why you’re writing in the first place. It’s to share your ideas so that your readers “get” what you’re saying.

Difficult words–including most jargon–and long sentences force the reader to work hard. And that’s going to chip away at their capacity and interest in what you have to communicate.

That’s why you need to be clear and understandable: so that your readers can follow you–without frustration.

Aim to have your papers “understandable to an educated audience,” as a former editor in chief of the American Journal of Epidemiology reportedly said.1

Using clear and simple language will also help you establish your credibility.

3 things to look out for

So let’s look at the specifics of using short, concise words and short sentences.

☑ Use short words

If you have the option, use the shorter, more direct word rather than longer, harder (supposedly “academic”) words that have many syllables.

Short words can be understood quickly. Using them will help your readers immediately understand your sentence, rather than using extra brain processing power to process your words.

Here are examples from Columbia of short words to use instead of their multisyllabic relatives:

Instead of: Write:
Source: Columbia University biology department, Writing a Scientific Research Article

▶ What you can do

  • Check the list above and also Plain English’s A-Z of alternative words.
  • Don’t worry about it when you’re writing your draft
  • When you’re in the editing stage, look for the words on these lists (underline/highlight them) and replace them with the shorter word.
  • If you know you tend to use certain long words, keep those words in a list. Make it a habit to find and replace them when you’re editing your work.

☑ Use concise words

The same is true for choosing concise words instead of long phrases.

The following lists are from Columbia’s guide. It shows some longer, more difficult words and phrases and the words that you can use instead.

 Instead of: Write:
prior tobefore
due to the fact thatbecause
in a considerable number of casesoften
the vast majority ofmost
during the time thatwhen
in close proximity tonear
Source: Columbia University biology department, Writing a Scientific Research Article

(BTW: there’s a great quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., on Columbia’s page about using a short word whenever possible. Do look for it!)

▶ What you can do

  • Again, check the resources at the end of this post for more of these words/phrases. Keep note of which ones you tend to use; make a list of them for easy reference.
  • Don’t worry about this when you’re writing your draft.
  • When you’re in the editing stage, look for the wordy phrases (underline/highlight them) and replace.

☑ Use short sentences

The Columbia guide says: “A sentence made of more than 40 words should probably be rewritten as two sentences.”

Plain language proponents suggest that sentences should be no more than 15 to 20 words long.2

For the writer, you’re more likely to get lost trying to write long, complex sentences and more likely to make mistakes. Keep it simple for yourself; stick to short sentences.3

For the reader, it’s easier to process short sentences that are to the point than long, complicated, meandering ones.

▶ What you can do

  • Stick to one idea per sentence when writing
  • When editing, find the long sentences (highlight/underline them) and try cutting them into smaller pieces. Make use of bullet points/lists, if appropriate
  • Look for wordier phrases (like the ones listed above) and replace with concise words
  • Use the active voice. It’s more direct and can help cut down wordiness
The active voice can often help shorten sentences:

Passive: Researchers had their questions answered in a special session with Albert Einstein.

Active: Albert Einstein answered the researchers’ questions in a special session.

(Adapted from example in “Plain Writing Tips – Passive Voice and Zombies,” Open Government at the National Archives.)

One final reminder: don’t let these points hamper you when you’re writing your draft–well, except for the tip to write short sentences. Go back to them when you’re in the editing stage.


If you would like help tightening your writing or to discuss whether we might be a good fit for your academic writing project, please get in touch via the contact form or email me at info@theclarityeditor.com.

Image by 15299 from Pixabay


  1. Words of late Dr. George Comstock, as quoted by Dr. Gary Friedman, editor of the same journal, in the course “Writing in the Sciences,” taught by Dr. Kristin Sainani, Stanford University via Coursera.
  2. See “How to write plain English,” Plain English Campaign.
  3. That’s not to say that all sentences MUST be short. Just be aware that “long” does not mean “better”–don’t try to write long sentences because you think they sound more sophisticated or academic.

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