Build Be Clear & Concise

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Some paragraphs throughout the course will be marked as examples, activities, required reading, or optional tips


  1. Concise Sentences
  2. Clear Paragraphs
picture of a building crane

Professional writing balances conciseness and clarity.

You may have heard the all-purpose communication advice, “If you can’t be brilliant, be brief.” In business writing, don’t fuss about brilliance; just be clear — and, by all means, brief.

In this chapter, you’ll learn how to eliminate fluff and bloat from every sentence and to assemble those trim, muscular sentences into clear, fluid paragraphs.

You may have heard the all-purpose communication advice, “If you can’t be brilliant, be brief.” In business writing, don’t fuss about brilliance; just be clear—and, by all means, brief.

In this chapter, you’ll learn how to eliminate fluff and bloat from every sentence and to assemble those trim, muscular sentences into clear, fluid paragraphs.

Section OneConcise Sentences

When we claim this book is about “professional” communication, many readers probably roll their eyes and imagine over-educated nerds spouting complex, jargon-laden sentences like the leader in this brilliant Australian parody of verbose, ornate language. Such pompous sentences are the opposite of what we mean by “professional.”

This section offers six tips for keeping sentences crisp.

Most paragraphs should be about
3 to 5
sentences long

Owl: Purdue Online Writing Lab

  1. Be active, not passive

    Audience-oriented writing is direct and to the point. This means you should almost always favor active voice. Active voice means you identify who or what is doing the action:

    ACTIVE VOICE (YES): Tamara won the salesperson-of-the-year award.

    PASSIVE VOICE (NO):The salesperson-of-the-year award was won by Tamara.

    In passive voice, the subject is either missing or included as an afterthought at the end of the sentence. The object becomes the subject of the sentence, and the verb becomes a form of “to be” + a past participle of the original verb:

    The passive version is 25% longer (ten words vs. eight) and focuses on the award rather than the person. Watch this video for greater clarity on the difference between active and passive voice: Prefer Active Voice.

    Sometimes you want to deemphasize the actor in the sentence—usually when trying to avoid casting blame on someone. Learn more about this rare but tactful use of passive voice here: Use Passive Voice Effectively.

    In general, use strong verbs in your sentences and avoid adverbs. Weak verbs like “be,” “have,” “say,” “want,” and “get” are boring and make your sentences longer, especially when paired with a bland adverb such as really, very, or definitely. Instead of a “weak adverb + weak verb” pairing, try using a single strong verb.


    The president insists on quiche for breakfast.


    The President really wants quiche for breakfast.

  2. Avoid “There was,” “It is,” and other indirect language

    Every sentence should state clearly who or what is doing the action. This seemingly simple rule is commonly violated, and the culprit is often one of two bad habits: starting your sentence with “there” or “it,” or starting with a verb that you’ve turned into a noun.

    This video shows how to notice and avoid using “there” and “it” as sentence starters: Avoid “There” and “It”.

    “There” and “it” are not always off limits. Your writing will be stronger, however, if you try to rewrite a sentence to give it a stronger subject. Consider the following examples:

    INDIRECT: There are many ways a business can go bankrupt.

    DIRECT: A business can go bankrupt in many ways.

    Turning verbs into nouns sucks the life out of the verb, morphing it into a bland, bureaucratic noun. This next video shows why and how to avoid this practice, known as “nominalization”: Avoid Nominalizations.

    Nominalizations aren’t always bad, but they can make your writing less concise. Examine these examples of nominalizations and their alternatives. Note how eliminating the nominalizations makes the sentences shorter:

    WEAK: Southwest Airlines made a decision to expand its international routes.

    STRONG: Southwest Airlines opted to expand its international routes.

    WEAK: A new budget airline offers direct competition to Southwest.

    STRONG: A new budget airline competes directly with Southwest.

  3. Keep actors close to the action

    Look at these two sentences:


    My supervisor, who usually doesn’t care whether we work remotely, told me to start showing up at the office.


    My supervisor told me to start showing up at the office. She usually doesn’t care whether we work remotely.

    In the bad example, eight words stand between the actor (“My supervisor”) and the action (“told me”). In the good example, the long, complex sentence becomes two clear, short sentences.

    Avoid interrupting the flow of your sentences by keeping subjects close to their verbs, a principle known as “verb vicinity.” Look for additional tips in this video: Keep Subjects and Verbs Close.

    As the video illustrates, placing a short phrase between the subject and the verb is sometimes permissible. But in general, your writing will be crisper if you place the actor and the action next to each other in your sentences.

  4. Eliminate every single unnecessary word or phrase

    Examine the above heading more closely. Can you see how it violates the principle it purports to espouse? Let’s pick it apart to learn more about being concise.

    1. Avoid unnecessary intensifiers. Really, very, quite, definitely, literally—these words are intensifiers that are supposed to add emphasis to the word they modify, but they do the opposite. Ban them from your professional writing.

      In the heading above, “every single” is an intensifier. Strike it, leaving “Eliminate unnecessary words or phrases.”

    2. Avoid long words wherever possible. Don’t buy into the lie that long, complicated, intellectual words make you sound smarter. They don’t. If anything, they make you sound pretentious. Winston Churchill was right: “Short words are best, and old words when short are the best of all.”

      Applying this rule, ascertain becomes learn.

      utilize use

      indispensable key

      recapitulate sum up

      And in the heading above, eliminate cut and unnecessary extra

      Now we’re down to “Cut extra words or phrases.”

    3. Avoid redundancy. Never unintentionally repeat yourself. Chances are that the audience heard you twice the first time. Do not let your writing become The Department of Redundancy Department.

      Here are some common redundancies.

      Redundant Not Redundant
      Combine together Combine or mix
      New beginner Beginner or novice
      Gather together Gather or meet
      The reason is because Because
      Basic fundamentals Basic or fundamentals
      True facts Facts or truths
      Past history History
      Important essentials Essentials
      End result Result
      Unexpected surprise Surprise
      Join together Together

      In our heading, do we really need to say “words or phrases”? Aren’t phrases just collections of words?

      Here is our new-and-improved headline: "Cut extra words." That’s 15 characters counting spaces; the original was 49. Enough said.

  5. Avoid wordy clichés

    Cliches are everywhere. We use them without thinking. Luckily, your word processing program, trained to “think” about what you’re writing, probably identifies your wordy cliches and suggests alternatives. Don’t be annoyed. Follow its advice.

    Here are some of the more common cliches. Try to become allergic to using them.

    Wordy cliché Better Alternative
    Due to the fact that Because
    By means of By
    For the purpose of For
    I (or we) would like to _____ _____ (just the verb)
    on a daily/weekly/monthly/etc. basis Daily/weekly/monthly/etc.
    In a _____ (e.g. quiet) manner Quietly
    In order to To
    The fact that That
    In spite of Despite
    In the event that If
    In the neighborhood of Approximately or about
    Please do not hesitate to Please
    With reference to About
    Every effort will be made We'll try
  6. Use prepositions sparingly

    Prepositions are connector words. The English language doesn’t work without them. “Without” in the previous sentence is a preposition connecting the verb “work” to the pronoun “them” (meaning prepositions).

    You can’t eliminate prepositions, but you can beware of using them in ways that create long prepositional phrases.

    WITH PREPOSITIONAL PHRASES (UGH!): Avila is a city with a wall around it.

    The sentence uses two prepositions: “with” and “around.” Let’s kill them.

    WITHOUT PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE (YAY!): Avila is a walled city.

    The adjective “walled” takes the place of two prepositional phrases. The sentence shrinks from nine words to five. Nice!


    Consider the rights of the citizens of Los Angeles.


    Consider Los Angeles citizens' rights.

    Brush up on your prepositions so you can find and cut them from your writing: Purdue OWL on Prepositions

    “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. Vigorous writing is concise.”
    —Strunk and White, Elements of Style

Section TwoClear Paragraphs

Have you ever received an email that contained one seemingly never-ending paragraph? Did you finish reading it? If so, you have an unusually high pain threshold.

Short, focused paragraphs are what audience-focused professionals use to divide their presentations, reports, and emails into manageable units. This section offers tips and techniques for constructing clear, fluid paragraphs.

“free from obscurity or ambiguity : easily understood : unmistakable."

Begin with a Topic Sentence

The first sentence of each paragraph should introduce your topic and inform the reader of the paragraph’s purpose. A topic sentence is a mini contract with the reader: “Here’s what we’ll cover in this block of text.” Applying the techniques from the previous section, compose lean topic sentences so busy readers can get the gist of your argument by skimming each paragraph’s topic sentence.

Supply Supporting Details

Furnish each paragraph with evidence that illustrates the idea stated in the topic sentence. Select concrete, specific details that help your audience fully grasp the idea. As business-writing guru Bryan Garner asserts, “People don’t care about—or even remember—abstractions the way they do specifics.” Specifics show exactly what you mean rather than merely talk around the idea.

To see how to show, not tell, read the examples in the table below:


Telling V. Showing

She’s not a good employee. She missed the last four employee meetings, showed up late for two client meetings, and lost key sales data.
Our sales team is doing great. Our team made 35% more sales this quarter than during the third quarter last year.
There are not enough funds for pay raises. Our analysis shows that we need to increase productivity by 8% or reduce expenses by 3% to afford a pay raise of 5%.
The retail industry is not what it used to be [vague]. Traditional retailers struggle to compete with the wide margins and low overhead of online retailers. [specific]

Supporting details: Seventy-one percent of shoppers believe they will get a better deal online than in stores.

The details in your paragraph should answer questions such as the following:

Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? How much?

In summary, concrete, specific details give your claims (and you) credibility.

Required Reading

Show don’t Tell

Read Bryan Garner’s article “Writing Emails that People Won’t Ignore.”

Make Smooth Transitions

Transition words and phrases guide readers not only from paragraph to paragraph in a document, but also from point to point within paragraphs. When used well, transitions don’t call attention to themselves.

Transitions might give emphasis, add points, set up contrasts, establish sequences, signal conclusions, or orient readers. See the table below for some examples.

Keep a list of transition words nearby to help you form links in your writing.

Awkward transition: And thus we can deduce that online sales play an important role in the retail industry.

Smooth Transition: Clearly, online sales play an important role in the retail industry.


Transition Examples

Establish a sequence At first, consumers are hesitant to buy online, but after just a few online shopping experiences, they seem to prefer online shopping.
Set up a contrast And yet, nothing can quite replace the experience of traditional shopping.
Provide an example For example, online shopping carts do not lead to online dressing rooms. Merchandise from online stores cannot be tried on—or even touched—before purchasing.
Add a point Processing returns also feels inconvenient and expensive for most shoppers.
Concede a point Even though returning online merchandise is easier than it has been in the past, packaging items for mailing and paying for shipping still feel burdensome.
Conclude On the whole, consumers are shifting to online shopping with increasing loyalty.

Be Brief

Paragraphs typically range from three to five sentences. When composing for a narrow-column format—such as a mobile device’s screen—keep paragraphs even shorter. Occasionally, you might use a single-sentence paragraph for emphasis. Other times, you might need a longer paragraph to complete your thought.

Back to Top

Alumni Advice

Communicating clearly with stakeholders is the most important skill I use in my day-to-day work. It sets me apart from people who are competent but can’t discuss business processes. Whether I’m presenting ideas and projects to executives or handling difficult conversations with coworkers, I strive to be concise and clear. My manager sees it as one of my greatest strengths.

- Maggie Jensen

Data Engineer, Walt Disney Studios

In Conclusion

Use these examples to start building clear, concise paragraphs.

Create paragraphs deliberately by using strong topic sentences, meaning-clarifying transitions, and just the right amount of detail.

When you use paragraphs to write strong emails and reports, your audience will be more likely to read and act upon your message.

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Bold citations are referenced in the chapter text.


Garner, Bryan A. “Write E-mails That People Won’t Ignore.” Harvard Business Review, February 21, 2013. Accessed August 2021.


Canavor, Natalie. Business Writing in the Digital Age. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2012.

Garner, Bryan A. HBR Guide to Better Business Writing. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2012.


Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age. “Transition Words.” Accessed August 2021.

Purdue Online Writing Lab. Prepositions for Time, Place, and Introducing Objects. Accessed May 2022.