Teachers often assign essays that have to meet a minimum word, paragraph, or page count. Unfortunately, this often leads to a paper littered with wordy sentences. Instead of adding more context or evidence to your thesis, you end up with a lot of fluff.
While the most important thing in your mind is meeting that word count, being too wordy can make your argument less impactful. Trust me—I know. The first 4,000-word paper I wrote was wordy and redundant, earning me the only D I’ve ever gotten on an essay.
But I’ve learned a lot in the 10 years since then, and now you get to benefit from that knowledge.
Long Sentences vs. Wordy Sentences
Before we get into why and how to avoid wordiness, we should first look at what it actually is. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I write some pretty long sentences. Does that make them wordy?
Not necessarily. In fact, long sentences are important—as long as you vary the length of your sentences. If you wrote a whole essay using nothing but short sentences, it would sound choppy. See this paragraph revamped as short sentences, for example:
Not necessarily. Long sentences are important. But vary the length. Don’t use only short sentences. It sounds choppy.
The original version was much better because it flowed better from one sentence to the next.
On the other side of the spectrum, you can have short and wordy sentences. Wordiness isn’t about length—it’s about content.
Take a look at these sentences:
Her mouth was watering a lot.
Her mouth watered.
While both sentences are short, the first has too many unnecessary words. The second gets the same message across without losing any meaning or context. Many teachers, writers, and readers would say it even sounds stronger than the first.
So what is wordiness? Simply put, it’s filling your sentences with unnecessary words.
Why Should You Avoid Wordy Sentences?
So you have a few unnecessary words in your sentences. What’s the big deal?
It’s true that you probably won’t fail your paper just because you have some wordiness. But it can detract from the impact of your essay. And if there’s too much wordiness, it makes it hard for your readers to find the important information you’ve worked so hard to include.
Concise language also makes you sound more confident as a writer. Take these two thesis statements, for example:
I believe the red A that Hester has to wear on her dress in The Scarlet Letter symbolizes shame at first, but later symbolizes Hester’s own independence.
The red A in The Scarlet Letter symbolizes both Hester’s shame and her independence.
Do you see how much clearer and more assured the second sentence is? It cut out the weasel words and the mention of the writer, leaving only what’s important. The intent is clear.
That’s what you want in your own writing.
How to Avoid Wordy Sentences
It’s one thing to understand why you should avoid wordiness, but you also need to know how. Don’t worry—I have you covered there too.
Take yourself out of the equation
What I’m referring to here are those “I believe,” “I think,” or “I’m going to show” statements. Unless you’re writing a personal essay that specifically requests experiences from your own life, you shouldn’t refer to yourself at all.
In this essay, I’m going to show how Louis Armstrong and other jazz musicians fought racism with their music in the 1930s and 1940s.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Louis Armstrong and other jazz musicians used their music to fight racism.
Use stronger words
Adjectives and adverbs can be helpful. They often fill in specific details for your readers and give them a clear picture of what you’re describing. However, students and writers sometimes overuse adjectives and adverbs when they could have instead chosen a stronger noun or verb.
Take a look at the following examples. You probably won’t have these specific phrases in your essay, but it gives you a good idea of how you can use stronger words to reduce wordiness.
- Walked leisurely → sauntered
- Very tall man → giant
- Shook violently → convulsed
Stronger nouns and verbs aren’t always going to be at the tip of your tongue, so don’t be afraid to use a thesaurus. Just be careful not to overuse it. After all, you don’t want your readers to have to use a thesaurus just to get through your essay.
Cut out weasel words
Weasel words are words writers use that aren’t necessary at all. They just seem to weasel their way into sentences without writers noticing. They’re not always easy to spot because we tend to use them when we speak. But unless you’re writing a very conversational piece, it’s best to be on the lookout for them.
A quick search online will show you lots of weasel word lists, but here are some of the most common ones:
- Began to
Take a look at these examples:
She said that you could use it.
She said you could use it.
Suddenly, there was a loud knock on the door.
There was a loud knock on the door.
In the first example, “that” is a word that has no meaning and can be deleted without altering the meaning of the sentence.
In the second example, you see a case of a time-related weasel word. Other examples include “then,” “all at once,” etc.
Importantly, weasel words shouldn’t be confused with transitions. Sometimes you need words like “however,” “therefore,” “additionally,” and others to make your thoughts flow logically from one sentence to the next. These transitional words or phrases are helpful and often necessary, unlike the weasel words we discussed.
Edit your work—multiple times, if possible
When you write your first draft, you’re probably not thinking about the perfect words to use or which words are weasel words—and that’s okay. The important thing is to get your ideas organized on the page. It’s the editing stage where you’ll want to look out for wordy sentences.
Different people have different editing methods, but I’ll share mine with you to give you an idea of how to cut out the wordiness.
After the first draft, I put my writing aside for a day. That way, I can edit with fresh eyes.
The first edit is focused on big organizational changes. Are the paragraphs in the right order? Are there whole sentences or paragraphs you can eliminate altogether? You might try a reverse outline at this stage to help get things in order.
Once the organization is good, then comes the smaller, word-level edits. Hit Ctrl+F on your keyboard, and search for the following:
- Adverbs ending in -ly
- Any weasel words you know you use too much
If the words are necessary, leave them in. But if you can delete them or change them to cut down on wordiness, do it.
Then, do one last round of edits to catch any other errors and to make sure everything still flows after the changes you’ve made.
I understand if you don’t have time to wait a day and do three rounds of edits after that. So feel free to modify the plan to fit your needs. But never forget the importance of proofreading and editing your work.
Still Think Your Essay Is Too Wordy?
For more ways to avoid wordiness in your essays, read Concise Writing: How to Write a Strong Essay With Fewer Words.
And if you still can’t find the wordy sentences in your essay or you’re not sure how to change them, you can get the help you need by turning to Kibin’s editors.
They’re here to show you potential missteps and help you correct issues with flow, wordiness, grammar, and more. That way, you know what to look out for when you write your next essay.