Selling the book proposal: Conciseness
Written by
Sarah Wolfgang
March 2016
Written by
Sarah Wolfgang
March 2016

This past week, I received partial edits for my book proposal. Throughout, there were a disconcerting amount of strikethroughs.

“We’re aiming for conciseness,” my agent wrote. “We want to make every word count.”

As a writer born into a family that brandished “brang” with alarming regularity, I’ve clung to an editing checklist that prioritizes grammar. Achieving “conciseness” wasn’t as important as avoiding scorn for using a word that doesn’t exist. “Murder[ing] your darlings,” as Arthur Quiller-Couch and every writing coach on the planet counsels, lacked definition and felt subjective to my poorly trained ears. But since a book deal lies on the other end of my understanding this nebulous writing goal, “I’m gonna figure this frigging thing out!” as my father would say. "Brang it on!"

Here is a sentence I wrote in my proposal: “After reading an inspirational carpe diem Reader’s Digest book excerpt, Dad types a list of ‘100 Things to Accomplish,’ which leads him to a truck driver school and a job hauling frozen food to cold storage plants across America.”

My agent replaced “After reading an inspirational” with “Inspired by.” This is a reduction of two words. Why is shorter better?

Shorter isn’t necessarily better, but, in this case, readers wade through eleven words before they arrive at the subject and verb. “This delay, even for good reasons, risks confusing the reader,” Roy Peter Clark writes in Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. Specifically, he warns against separating the subject from the verb, but the impact of a long introductory phrase like the one I wrote is the same. Power comes from creating right-branching sentences: the subject and verb start the sentence, followed by other subordinate elements. “Clarity and narrative energy flow through the passage, as one sentence builds on another,” Clark writes. Delay works only when the writer needs to create tension. If you need to include an introductory phrase to add variety, keep it short. My agent shortened things.

 “Vigorous writing is concise,” Strunk and White tell us. “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

So, how can I—we—self-edit better? What, on the sentence level, is concise?

Thanks to, the free, online text archive, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is available on the Internet. Three of the best rules on achieving conciseness in the influential American English style guide are below.

Omit needless words.

Use the active voice.

Put statements in positive forms.

And whatever brang or brought you here, don’t forget to leave any tips or rules you know on achieving conciseness.

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  • Sarah Wolfgang

    @Jane R. Snyder Thank you! I've never heard that bit of advice. I'm sure I'm a big offender. I once had a phase of putting "and" between each item in a list for some imagined rhythmic emphasis. I also have to work hard to omit unnecessary "that"s.  

  • Jane R. Snyder

    One of the best pieces of advice I ever got came from my late mother who told me, "Beware of three letter words!"

    I never call a manuscript finished until I've read it through once more looking for every three-letter word (and/but/for/the/etc.) I can do without. My writing is always improved by this one last review!

  • Sarah Wolfgang

    @ Patricia Robertson Thank you! It took me a long time to see they are good tips.

    @ Lori A. May Thank you!

    @ Katy Read The same happened to me. Journalism is where I learned concise language isn't simple or boring. Of course, the way I think is hardly ever so concise, and it can be difficult for me to see that a wordy introductory phrase or dependent clause or just wordiness in general isn't as effective as something leaner. It's difficult to see when the meaning of something wordy versus something not wordy yields the same meaning. At that point, I have to think about pacing and how easy a sentence is to read and understand, instead of just what is means and/or the prettiness (in my mind) of a string of over-stuffed dependent clauses.

  • Katy Read

    I took a bunch of English-department writing classes in college -- only after switching to a journalism major did I even encounter the idea that concision is a virtue. But it so is. Sometimes those things are hard to spot -- I might not have noticed anything wrong with your original sentence, but your agent is good. I try to do that kind of thing throughout my writing, but it can be hard to see. The best famous quote (by I don't know who) to fit this situation was something like "Sorry this letter is so long, I would have made it shorter if I'd had time." That also applies to this comment! :)

  • Lori A. May

    Good reminders! Thanks for sharing this, Sarah.

  • Good tips, Sarah.

  • Sarah Wolfgang

    Wow! Thank you, Kristin. I'm glad you liked it.

  • Thanks for writing Sarah! I'm going to feature this in an upcoming newsletter.