Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: V – Conciseness



To be concise means to be brief and to-the-point. To be effectively concise requires having only the necessary information structured in the shortest, clearest, and simplest way possible. If a sentence, or paragraph, or essay is concise then the reader will have a much easier time navigating and comprehending it. If the writer is concise they can fit more into their essay. The reader will also thank you for not wasting their time with unnecessary details or flourishes.

Often students are not concise, instead choosing to be wordy and discursive. The reasons for why students are not concise, or not as concise as they could have otherwise been, vary. Some (1) mistakenly think the sentence or paragraph is concise and that the expert is wrong. Other times, (2) they believe the sentence cannot be any more concise than it is presently. A student might also, (3), argue that there is such a thing as being too concise, and that being too concise is overly restrictive, resulting in a loss of meaning or detail. And, (4) understandably, often many mistake ‘philosophy’ for being a subject that requires the flowery expressions and turns of phrases comparably continental philosophers (self-help, new-age books).

Reason (4) is simply a result of undergraduate students being exposed to certain conceptions of philosophy (such as a layman understanding of philosophy), and only certain kinds (self-help, Nietzsche, Rand, De Botton, etc.). I think, in cases like this, it is just a matter of explaining to the student that academic philosophy is done quite differently. Student’s who were being vague or discursive for reason (4) often become concise because “that is just how it is done at the University”.

Reasons (1), (2), and (3), are a matter of students having to learn a craft and realise that they do not know what they are talking about. That is, the students holding to 1, 2, and 3, need to recognise the expertise of their marker, tutor, professor, etc., that when the experts tells you it is not concise, then it is not concise. With regards to (3), the student needs to recognise that being concise requires not losing necessary and valuable information. The trick this student must learn is to be concise and keep all the important information. With regards to (2), this student lacks imagination. This student needs to enumerate the different ways of expressing the same idea and, through this procedure, generate the most concise sentence, or paragraph, that they can. With regards to (1), the student lacks insight; they simply don’t realise the sentence or paragraph is not what it could have been.

You might wonder how one becomes concise. My answer is that we learn to be concise the same way we learn anything: practice. In the same way as the musician, or the artist, or the carpenter, produce great work and demonstrate excellent skill, they treat their subject as a craft. Students need to think about writing essays as practicing the craft of writing. And, in the same way the musician, or the tradesman, takes care of every detail in their work, so the student needs to treat each word as being as important as the totality of the paper it resides in.

The student needs to ask themselves constantly: “can this sentence, this paragraph, this section, this paper, this chapter, be any more concise?”, and then explore whether it can be.


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