I just finished "Revising Prose," one of the best books I've read about improving your writing. The author is a professor of English at UCLA who comes right out and says that academic writing encourages excessive wordiness and that clear, concise writing is the mark of good writer and thinker. He teaches what he calls the "Paramedic Method" to improve any sentence. Here are a few of the key points.
1. Circle the prepositions.
Too many prepositions take the action out of a sentence and make it unnecessarily wordy. So circle anything like of, in, by, through, from, etc.
Removing the prepositions just makes this sentence better.
Original: "In this paragraph is an example of the use of a cliche in describing an experience."
Revised: "This paragraph uses a cliche to describe an experience."
2. Circle the "Is" forms.
I never had a problem with the word "Is" until I read this book. Now I understand that "is" and all its forms (is, was, will be, seems to be, have been, etc.) just suck the life out of a sentence. Replace all "is" forms with action verbs, and get rid of unnecessary prepositions, and your sentence comes back to life.
Original: "The trend in college admissions seems to be that there is a general increase in selectivity at famous colleges."
Revised: "Famous colleges are becoming more selective."
3. Find the action.
The author calls this, "Ask who's kicking whom." To revise your sentences and make them active and clear, just identify the action–ask yourself who is doing what to whom, and make that the focus of the sentence.
Original: "Attending a private college is considered too expensive by some people."
Who is doing what to whom? Some people are considering… Let's revise it and focus on the action.
Revised: "Some people consider private colleges too expensive."
4. Make the "kicking" a simple action verb.
Original: "The need for safety schools is not satisfied in this college list."
Revised: "This college list does not satisfy the need for safety schools."
Even better revision: "This college list needs safety schools."
5. Start fast.
Every time you start a sentence with, "The point I'm trying to make is," or "What we need to focus on is," or, "My opinion is that," you're starting off a sentence too slowly. The author calls these "slow windups." We always say that a college essay has to start with a pithy first sentence that comes right out and says something. But that doesn't mean that other sentences should start slowly.
So when you write a sentence, start fast. Don't do a slow windup. Say what you want to say.
Those are just a few of his tips. It's a great book that, somewhat frustratingly, makes me want to go back through everything I've ever written and totally revise it.